Judge Ed Cleary’s rousing call elsewhere in the Star Tribune's opinion section for liberty and tolerance toward even the most controversial speech and thought reminds us that the roots of our era’s spirit of righteous repression reach back a fair number of years.
Yet with university administrations, art museums, state governments, historic preservationists, park boards and more often in full retreat before today’s emboldened thought police, seldom before have we seemed so urgently to need leaders who will serve as role models, taking a stand for open-mindedness and crying out for civil discourse.
And as it happens, happily, a trio of Cleary’s fellow Minnesota judges have also recently stepped forward to show what respect for diversity of thought looks like.
Retired state Supreme Court Justices Alan Page, Paul Anderson and Helen Meyer sent a joint letter two weeks ago to DFL U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, and bipartisan Senate leaders, urging prompt confirmation of their former colleague, Minnesota Supreme Court Justice David Stras, to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The retired justices also sent the letter to the Star Tribune and agreed to have it published.
Stras was named to the Eighth Circuit Court last month by President Trump — having appeared last year on a list of American jurists whom candidate Donald Trump identified as the kinds of conservatives he would put on the federal bench if elected. As I wrote at the time, the inclusion of Stras was a hopeful sign — in the unlikely event that the reckless Republican nominee ever reached the Oval Office.
While his ties to outspokenly conservative legal and intellectual circles had raised concerns in some quarters when he was appointed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2010, Stras has proved thoughtful and refreshingly unpredictable on the state court. He is something of a “fussbudget,” as I noted last year, for precedent, and for following the literal text of laws, and for a limited role for the judiciary.
In short, conservative, but in a good way, for those who can imagine a good way to be conservative.
Yet while their colleague’s virtues — which they describe more credibly than I can — doubtless have a lot to do with the endorsement Page, Meyer and Anderson have extended, the quality they demonstrate by the act of extending it seems even more worthy of endorsement.
Because Alan Page, Helen Meyer and Paul Anderson are not conservatives, in a good way or otherwise. Justice Anderson allowed in an e-mail that they are all “viewed to be left of center in their jurisprudence.” Far be it from me to dispute such a distinguished observer.
Yet their philosophical differences with Stras have not prevented these judges from speaking out on his behalf — and in the process speaking on behalf of the critical idea that some things are more important than ideological differences, things like honesty, integrity, intellect and fairness. Their letter speaks out for the faith that a vigorous and respectful exchange of conflicting views brings us closer to understanding the truth of a question than a deafening echo chamber ever can.
There is in the retired justices’ action an understanding of the special need for courts to neutralize bias so far as is humanly possible (which is far from entirely) if they are to sustain their special credibility in our system of government. There is also in it an understanding of the very different but unyielding realities politicians like those in the Senate deal with, in the face of which they often need “cover” to do the right thing.
And perhaps there is in the retired judges’ gracious gesture a sense of the perilous moment America is in — when we seem at the brink of forsaking the indispensable democratic imperative to calmly endure, if not warmly embrace, our many differences.
I should make it entirely clear that Page, Meyer and Anderson, in endorsing Stras’ elevation, imply no particular attitude toward the many cultural and political disputes boiling over in America and Minnesota these days. But their testimony to the value of hearing multiple points of view seems to me to shed light on our situation.
At a time when sculptures are being dismantled, statues toppled, paintings mothballed, names of lakes and schools denounced, speakers on college campuses shouted down and disinvited, and retributions and intimidations of many kinds being visited on those who even inadvertently offend today’s intensifying sensitivities and orthodoxies — it feels as if many conversations are becoming a little one-sided.
Indeed, a particular passion of our times seems to be handing down severe indictments of the dead — who are at a notorious disadvantage in debate.
The evils and errors of the past were many and grievous. And maybe any sort of interest in our forebears should be encouraged in this historically indifferent era. But truly every story has more than one side. That even goes for the heartbreaking tragedy of Minnesota’s 1862 Dakota War, which has recently drawn the Walker Art Center into the path of a cultural storm.
Hundreds of settlers — about 600 is a frequently cited estimate — were killed in the 1862 disaster, which painfully led to the largest mass execution in U.S. history. In proportion to the young state’s modest non-Indian population of the time, the toll was especially shocking, the equivalent of perhaps 15,000 Minnesotans being killed today. In short, it’s simply worth remembering that it was an extreme and excruciating event on all sides, start to finish — and to this very day.
The real lesson of history is that people in every era suffered moral blind spots that amaze and appall their descendants. And we in our era are unlikely to be altogether different in this respect. People of the past, most of them, weren’t moral monsters. They were simply too proud and too sure of themselves, especially on issues where everyone they knew agreed with them. We should beware of following that example.
One way to avoid blind spots may be to keep open channels of communication among people who don’t agree about everything. That’s getting harder in our troubled times. So here’s a salute to some Minnesota judges for reminding us how it’s done.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.