Law of the Land
BY EMILY H. FREEMAN PHOTOGRAPHY BY ALISIA DUGANZ
Why Big Sky Country is Jim Goetz’s biggest cause
The snow-capped peaks of the Bridger Mountains create a movie-perfect backdrop for downtown Bozeman. This once-sleepy
cowboy town now attracts tourists year-round and, with the help of
Montana State University, is one of the state’s most culturally and
technologically sophisticated locales.
The office of Goetz, Baldwin & Geddes is located in a meticulously restored and re-
imagined blacksmith shop on a leafy side street just off the main drag. Jim Goetz has
practiced law here for nearly half a century and can’t imagine going anywhere else.
The “why” is simple: “I love Montana.”
The feeling is mutual.
“I am proud to call Jim Goetz not only my attorney, I am extremely proud to call him
my friend,” says Fritz Daily, an activist and former Butte legislator who worked with
Goetz on water issues. “Without question, his greatest accomplishment is securing
stream access for the sportsmen and women of Montana. I am sure he received as
much satisfaction from this success as he did from the monetary compensation he
received in the process. The residents of Montana owe Jim a great deal of kudos for
what he’s accomplished.”
In 1968, Goetz returned home from law school at Yale, landed a teaching job at
MSU and planned to open a practice. But first, there was the bar exam.
The first time out, he didn’t pass. Not that it was going to stop him. In fact, it was
serendipitous that he didn’t. He found out that students at the University of Montana
were automatically admitted to the Bar upon graduation from Alexander Blewett III
School of Law, in accordance with the state’s so-called “diploma privilege.”
“I saw a real injustice; I was angry; and I thought it was horribly unfair, so I just
decided to rectify it,” Goetz says. In addition, Goetz describes the administering and
grading of the exam as having been a rather quick and subjective affair. “One of the
questions was: What is the difference between a civil right and a civil liberty? I still don’t
know what the hell the right answer to that is.”
Not content to simply try again, Goetz took his grievance all the way to the Montana
State Supreme Court. At 26, Goetz represented himself in his first case: Goetz v. Harrison.
It challenged the constitutionality of diploma privilege and, though he lost, the case
ultimately led to its abolition—much to the chagrin of UM students, some of whom
blamed him and made defamatory T-shirts saying as much. “The Supreme Court
actually changed the rule,” he says. “But I’d be happy to take credit for the whole thing.”
Goetz passed the exam the following year. “That was a fairly notorious suit,” says
Goetz, “so the heat was on me the second time I took the bar. I would’ve been really
embarrassed if I’d failed the second time.”