So many people signed up in mid-March to testify on House Bill 349, a campus free association bill, that Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Keith Regier limited proponents and opponents to one minute of speaking time each. Sen. John Esp, sitting to Regier’s right, kept a timer running. 

And so when Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras rushed into the room to testify in support of the bill just before Regier moved on to opponents, lawmakers on the committee were in the awkward position of asking one of the state’s highest-ranking elected officials to, with all due respect, speak quickly.

“Tell her she’s got one minute,” Esp whispered to Regier as Juras approached the lectern. Regier apologetically obliged.

“Sorry, I have to catch my breath,” Juras said, flashing a smile and putting her hand on her chest. She had just run up to the hearing room from a lower floor, she said. The former law professor and long-time attorney, age 65, then squared her shoulders to the committee, stated her title, and announced she was there to support the bill, which would remove some restrictions from religious, political and ideological student groups, on behalf of Gov. Greg Gianforte.

Soon after she started, Esp announced that her time was up. Juras made eye contact with the committee members and finished her sentence.

“This is a problem that exists in Montana, and we do request a vote in support of HB 349,” she said. “Thank you.”

Juras’ testimony on HB 349 was far from her only public commentary during the ongoing legislative session. She appears regularly to speak on behalf of the administration, and can often be seen talking with lawmakers in hallways between committee hearings or floor votes. Her visibility, and the full-throated endorsements she bestows, make her one of the most recognizable and formidable envoys of the Gianforte administration. 

“Ultimately, as lieutenant governor, your job is to follow the governor’s lead. But I think they’re more aligned on these issues. It’s not always easy to find well-spoken people to speak on these controversial issues.”

Jeremy Johnson, professor of political science at Carroll College

So far, her performance of the lieutenant governor’s role is also unique, particularly in a position that is often seen as more ceremonial than substantive. 

“You might have a community event. The governor cannot come, so the lieutenant governor goes,” said Jeremy Johnson, professor of political science at Carroll College. In Juras’ case, however, “some of these are quite controversial bills and he’s had her as a spokesperson … off the top of my head, I can’t think of an equivalent [in other administrations].”

Juras notes that she is far from the only member of Gianforte’s cabinet making public appearances in legislative proceedings, particularly as the budget-making process unfolds. But Juras’ particular advocacy on controversial social-issue bills, including a proposal to shake up the judicial nomination process and a Religious Freedom Restoration Act vehemently opposed by Democrats and LGBTQ advocates, has sent a strong signal to lawmakers that these bills are priorities of the Gianforte administration.

“Ultimately, as lieutenant governor, your job is to follow the governor’s lead. But I think they’re more aligned on these issues,” Johnson said. “It’s not always easy to find well-spoken people to speak on these controversial issues.”

Juras’ political clout has been built over the last decade, raising her profile well beyond that of a typical academic or private attorney. After roughly two decades teaching law and an unsuccessful bid for the Montana Supreme Court, she’s cemented her public status as a right-leaning legal analyst. Now, the legislation drawing Juras’ involvement, centered on judicial reforms and religious expression, has either been signed into law or is approaching the governor’s desk, solidifying her reputation as a key player within the new administration. 

Juras’ office in the east wing of the Capitol has not yet been fully unpacked nearly four months after she was sworn in. Stacks of paper and personal items obscure the cabinets behind her desk. Her schedule on a Friday morning in late March was rigid with back-to-back meetings, with only a brief window for an arranged interview. Despite the hectic calendar, the maskless lieutenant governor appeared unfazed and energized, moving from one meeting to another without missing a beat.

Juras’ path to the lieutenant governor’s office started in Conrad, population 2,426, north of Great Falls. A fourth-generation Montanan, she was born into the influential Gustafson and Galt families (her cousin’s son, Wylie Galt, is currently Speaker of the House of Representatives). Juras grew up on her family’s ranch as the second-oldest child and only daughter among four brothers.

“My earliest memory is falling off of a horse when I was 3 years old,” she said, recalling a tumble from her father’s horse, Pokey, with the confidence of someone who knows she’s telling a good story. Asked if she was hurt, she waved it off. “That was just my first fall. I’ve fallen off of many, many horses,” she said in a tone conveying gracious self-deprecation and more than a hint of pride.

Juras said the ranch and her family relationships helped establish her work ethic and, to a degree, her self-confidence. After spending her undergraduate years studying French and German languages at Carroll College and the University of Montana, she worked as a research assistant for former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk while he taught at the University of Georgia. Juras called Rusk, who was widely criticized for his stalwart support of the Vietnam War under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, a “grandfather figure” in her life. His influence helped inspire her to pursue a law career, she said, at a time when more women were beginning to assert themselves in professional fields and advanced education.

Governor-elect Greg Gianforte speaks to supporters shortly after the Associated Press called the Montana governor’s race in his favor as running-mate Kristin Juras looks on, Nov. 3, 2020. Credit: Nick Mott/Montana Public Radio

“My father was the one who told me I could do anything I put my mind to,” Juras said. “I was just so comfortable being in an environment [where] there were more men than women that it really prepared me and gave me a comfort level. You know, I’m their equal, I can work with them, I can speak my mind to them … those are the things I learned from my brothers. I learned to be direct, to deal with problems right away.”

After graduating from the University of Georgia Law School in 1982, Juras met and fell in love with her now-husband John Juras. “A ramblin’ wreck from Georgia Tech,” she said with a smile. They married in Oklahoma and, after John left the Air Force, moved to Montana with their two children in 1988 before having their third son. Juras soon started practicing law in Great Falls, often representing farmers and ranchers from the surrounding area.

“Being a rancher myself, I understood the issues that they face. They like it when there’s an attorney who understands the difference between a heifer and Hereford,” Juras said. “It was a very important skill set that I brought in representing those people, that I understood their language, I understood their issues.”

Juras is often described, by herself and others, as a hard worker who throws herself fully into tasks. Echoing the ethos of her family’s ranch, she said, “there’s always something you can go do.” The lieutenant governor’s characteristic resolve, apparent in her recent lobbying efforts, has also been illuminated through her unabashed stances on social issues, many of which were parsed in local and statewide news cycles during her time at the University of Montana law school. 

“I didn’t go looking for issues to arise or deliberately stir up issues,” Juras said. “But yes, I was raised in a family where we discussed openly, directly, issues that bothered us. And so I do have a certain directness about me.”

Juras began working at the law school as a part-time adjunct professor in the early aughts, scaling back her private practice to spend more time with family. By 2007, she was working at the university full-time while also serving as adviser to the Christian Legal Society, a student organization on campus. 

Several of Juras’ former students said they rarely heard her hint at personal politics in the classroom. They described her as an enjoyable and thoughtful professor who worked hard to help them succeed.

“I was just so comfortable being in an environment [where] there were more men than women that it really prepared me and gave me a comfort level. You know, I’m their equal, I can work with them, I can speak my mind to them … those are the things I learned from my brothers. I learned to be direct, to deal with problems right away.”

Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras

“I had the same experience,” said Kyle Nelson, now an attorney with Goetz, Baldwin and Geddes in Bozeman, speaking on his own behalf and echoing praise from some of Juras’ other former students. “She was a wonderful teacher. Fun, kind, polite … she just wanted people to learn. She wasn’t trying to find the poor sap who didn’t do the reading the night before.”

Outside of teaching hours, though, Juras’ conservative ideals and personal moral compass  were apparent. In 2009, she asked university officials to put parameters on the Kaimin, UM’s student newspaper, after disapproving of a light-hearted informational sex column, written by an undergraduate student, that Juras considered “unhealthy.” Looking back, Juras said she thought the column should have focused more on the serious issue of non-consensual sex, which she said was important for a college audience. The Kaimin’s columnist, staff and university leadership disagreed, taking particular issue with the fact that a law professor was pushing for editorial changes to a student publication based on her own personal preference.

“I think it was wrongly turned into I was trying to ‘shut down’ the sex column, and that was never my intent,” Juras recalled. “I made that very clear. I asked them, would you consider the content?”

At the time, Juras’ opposition was more insistent, according to newspaper coverage and other accounts of the local drama. As the Missoulian reported, Juras went so far as to write a letter to then-university President George Dennison and School of Journalism Dean Peggy Kuhr, asking them to address the issue with the student newspaper staff and “ask them to reconsider their publication of this column.”

“She was definitely trying to get their money yanked if they didn’t follow what she thought it was they should be writing about,” said retired journalism professor and former Kaimin adviser Carol Van Valkenburg, who remembered an instance in which Juras said she was considering taking the issue up with the Board of Regents after her concerns were rebuffed by the paper’s editorial leadership.

“I just found it interesting why she was so vitally interested in it, why she felt she needed to speak up against this column in the Kaimin,” Van Valkenburg said. “Did she think it was affecting the morals of the students on campus? [I couldn’t tell] just what her motivation was.” 

Juras was also embroiled in another incident, also rooted in a disagreement over First Amendment rights, that escalated to a lawsuit. The university’s Student Bar Association opted to withhold student funding in 2007 and 2008 from the Christian Legal Society, which Juras advised, because the society required members sign a “statement of faith” opposing, among other things, a “sexually immoral lifestyle,” a category that included homosexuality. The student association judged that requirement discriminatory and declined to fund the group, citing university policies. After bringing a lawsuit over the matter, the Christian Legal Society eventually agreed to settle in 2011, following an unsuccessful court appeal. The terms of the settlement dictated that university students would not have to fund the group and that the Christian Legal Society would still be allowed to use university facilities. 

Juras, retelling this story recently during public testimony on religious freedom bills, rarely mentions that the original withdrawal of funding from the student group was tied to an allegation of discriminatory policies. Rather, she focuses on a narrative that the Student Bar Association discriminated against the Christian Legal Society. 

“The purpose of the Christian Legal Society was to provide fellowship for Christians on campus and to talk about how, as a Christian, do we walk out our faith as a lawyer?” Juras said, explaining that the group often ministered to children of incarcerated people and handed out snacks during exam week on campus. 

“You can only imagine how the Christian students felt when they were told that they weren’t welcome at the law school when their purpose was to serve and to fellowship together,” she said. “And so we chose to file a lawsuit.”

For those who know Juras or have watched her in the public sphere, it’s sometimes a struggle to reconcile her apparent duality as a kind, nurturing and generous mentor, and a zealous reformer who bullishly defends polarizing opinions. 

“This session has been totally different. Gov. Gianforte has come through several times, talking to people just before a floor session. What has really surprised me though is Lt. Gov. Juras, and her involvement in legislation and testifying. And I find that really to be an asset for the state … it helps us know what [the executive office] is thinking and what kind of legislation is important to them.”

Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell

“She presents as kind of innocuous and polite,” said Tim Warner Jr., a private consultant and former media manager for Judge Dirk Sandefur, Juras’ competitor in the 2016 race for the state Supreme Court. “But at the debates, when she started talking defending her policy positions, [her conservative perspectives] became clear.”

Both traits are often referenced as central to understanding Juras’ character, even as a steady trickle of public scuffles have made her better known for the latter. 

She was on the receiving end of sharp criticism from former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer and university leaders in 2012 after she produced a legal analysis about property valuation, paid for by Cablevision/Bresnan, that failed to disclose that her findings did not represent the university’s position. At the time, Juras said she regretted the mistake, but defended her academic freedom to conduct research and critique the government.

Later, during her race for the state Supreme Court, she met strong headwinds after critics publicized her university emails, in which Juras expressed a desire to deliberate on religious freedom cases, sparking blowback from some attorneys and civil rights advocates. During the race, she was also scrutinized for her stances on Montana’s stream access laws and her personal views on gay marriage

“This is where, when you look at her record and where she’s chosen to put herself into the public domain, she aligned very closely with the extreme right-wing groups,” Warner said, referring to the Republican State Leadership Committee-Judicial Fairness Initiative and the Montana Family Foundation. “We would have been surprised if she had taken a position against discrimination … you know, if she was actually defending and protecting the Constitution of the state of Montana, the right to privacy and the right to a clean and healthful environment … that would have been a surprise.”

In the current legislative session, conservative legal groups are lining up alongside Juras to advance bills that supporters say would strengthen religious freedoms in Montana, and critics argue would enable discrimination, particularly against LGBTQ people. Also on Juras’ docket was a proposal to concentrate power to fill judicial vacancies in the governor’s office, which Gianforte recently signed into law and opponents quickly challenged in court. During deliberations, lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee struck down an amendment to explicitly restrict the governor from appointing “the lieutenant governor, members of the governor’s personal staff, and cabinet-level appointees” to such vacancies within two years of holding their position.

Regarding her highly visible participation in the legislative process this year, Juras said she is doing her part to advance the administration’s policy agenda, and that she sees herself and Gianforte as being “a great team” with complementary strengths. Pressed on how the governor’s office decides which bills Juras will testify on, she rifles through the pile of materials in her office and fishes out a copy of the Montana Comeback Plan, Gianforte’s signature catchphrase and blueprint outlining his policy agenda. She holds the report next to her face, extolling the benefits of the administration’s economic and social goals, adding that her role centers on bills that have a particular “legal aspect to them.” 

Some observers have pointed out that Juras is likely one of the few people who can successfully lobby on certain high-profile and controversial bills, precisely because of the nuance in her personality that makes her both an amiable diplomat and a political force.

“[It’s] much easier to send Kristen Juras for the task,” Warner said. “… It’s probably not just by happenstance that when more extreme right-wing organizations and people put out the call for somebody to make the case for them, she seems to be the person with their hand up first, every time.”

Among legislators, perceptions vary widely on the administration’s deployment of Juras to promote certain bills. Under Steve Bullock’s administration, according to people familiar with the former governor’s strategy, most policy discussions and negotiations happened behind the scenes, well away from public hearings and legislative proceedings.

Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras testifies before the Montana House Judiciary Committee on behalf of Gov. Greg Gianforte in support of Senate Bill 215. The “Montana Religious Freedom Restoration Act” would raise judicial scrutiny of cases involving government infringement on free exercise of religion to “strict,” and require the government to demonstrate it had a “compelling interest” in limiting a person’s freedom of religion. Juras said the bill was not a “license to discriminate” against LGBTQ people, but opponents noted the bill does not contain language preventing the use of religion as an excuse to discriminate. Credit: Austin Amestoy/UM Legislative News Service

“This session has been totally different. Gov. Gianforte has come through several times, talking to people just before a floor session,” said Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell. “What has really surprised me though is Lt. Gov. Juras, and her involvement in legislation and testifying. And I find that really to be an asset for the state … it helps us know what [the executive office] is thinking and what kind of legislation is important to them.”

Other lawmakers agree that having representatives of the executive branch weigh in on specific bills is clarifying, but they acknowledge that it can affect the political atmosphere.

“I know what it feels like when the governor’s office walks into a committee room and voices their opinion, regardless of who the messenger is,” said Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston. “It obviously puts pressure on the members in those committees in particular.” 

For some legislators, Juras’ personal presence is less noteworthy than the policies she supports.

“I think that each administration can choose for itself how it communicates with the Legislature, but the bigger concern has to be with what they’re saying,” said Sen. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, who characterized the administration’s support for the Religious Freedom Restoration Amendment (RFRA), which critics say will enable legal discrimination, as “jarring.” 

“I’ve just never seen people being so bold about such a backward agenda,” Bennett said.

Juras doesn’t budge under such criticism. “The governor has made it clear that we respect and want to protect the rights of all of the citizens of Montana,” Juras said, later adding in an emailed statement that she and Gianforte believe “discrimination of any kind is wrong.” Religious Freedom Restoration laws, she said, have allowed “Native American children to wear braids in school, Sikhs to wear turbans in the military, and Christian employers to refuse to cover abortions under their health insurance policies.”

Many critics of the administration’s agenda have pledged to challenge these bills in court, if they survive the legislative process. Juras herself, having once expressed a desire to assess such matters as a judge, now says she’s content to keep her focus on policy-making. 

“I love this job,” she said emphatically. “I am going to fulfill my role here. And when I’m done here, I am going to spend time with my grandkids.”

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Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.