Accessible Navigation. Go to: Navigation Main Content Footer

Find Us On FacebookTHE MONTANAN

The Magazine of The University of Montana

ARTIFACTS: Sound Judgment

By John Heaney ’02

Judge Browning

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum Photo No. SC578830.

There are some familiar faces in this photograph, which sits on the shelf of a display case in The University of Montana School of Law.

It was taken on January 20, 1961, the day John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as the thirty-fifth president of the United States.

There’s JFK, with his right hand raised, taking the oath of office.

There’s Lyndon Baines Johnson, the vice president, on the right.

And on the left is Earl Warren, chief justice of the United States.

The man in the middle, holding the Bible? That’s James R. Browning, the pride of Belt, Mont., population 600.

While he might not have the most recognizable face in this photo, there’s no doubt Browning is recognized at UM as one of its most distinguished alums.

Browning, who was the clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court when the photo was taken, graduated from the UM School of Law in 1941. In fact, he’s the last clerk to hold the Bible at the inauguration ceremony. That honor now belongs to the spouse of the president-elect.

Browning was the country’s longest-serving federal appellate judge, working nearly fifty years on the bench of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco. He was appointed by President Kennedy in 1961, served as the chief judge from 1976-88, and assumed senior status in 2000. The federal courthouse in San Francisco was renamed in his honor in 2005.

The man in the middle, holding the Bible? That’s James R. Browning, the pride of Belt, Mont., population 600.

Judge Browning died on May 5, 2012, at age ninety-three.

Though his career took him away from Big Sky Country, he never forgot his roots.

“Anytime he appeared in public, he always identified himself as a Montanan and a graduate of The University of Montana,” says recently retired UM law Professor and former Dean Martin Burke. “I’m not exaggerating. He was so proud of being a Montanan and a graduate of UM. Marie Rose, his wife, also went to UM. So the two of them, as a team, were the best possible publicity for the state of Montana and UM you could have.”

He cared deeply about the School of Law and periodically returned to UM to lecture, meet students, and advise the deans and faculty. He once spent a week as the law school’s jurist-in-residence. He also hired and mentored many law clerks who graduated from UM.

His legacy lives on at UM through the annual James R. Browning Distinguished Lecture in Law, hosted by the Montana Law Review, which Browning helped found as a student. The James R. Browning Service to Law and Justice Award, which was established in 2011, will be given to the person who “most exemplifies Judge Browning’s service to the law and advancement of justice.” It’s the highest honor the School of Law awards.

It’s an honor that hasn’t been awarded yet to anyone but Browning. When it is, maybe the recipients could have their names listed on a plaque, which could sit on the shelf in the display case right next to this photo.

It sure seems like an appropriate spot.