Anne K. McKeig took the state’s judicial oath Thursday, becoming the first American Indian jurist to serve on the Minnesota Supreme Court after a swearing-in ceremony where friends and colleagues praised her wit, generosity and commitment to the welfare of children.
“We as a community have an obligation to work on behalf of all children, for it truly takes a village to raise a child,” McKeig said. “I will do my very best to serve all Minnesotans. I also promise to never take myself too seriously, nor forget who I am or where I came from.”
The swearing-in ceremony, held at McKeig’s alma mater, St. Catherine University in St. Paul, is a career milestone for the 49-year-old judge, who rose from poverty and other disadvantages in the tiny town of Federal Dam, near Leech Lake, to become the 94th associate justice on the state Supreme Court. A descendant of White Earth Nation, McKeig has specialized in child protection and Indian welfare issues.
“She was born into a life much like many of the people who become involved with Minnesota’s court system: poverty, discrimination, seemingly too few opportunities,” Gov. Mark Dayton said Thursday. “Yet she lifted herself above and beyond those disadvantages which have crippled others.”
McKeig’s appointment by Dayton earlier this summer also gives the court its first female majority since 1991. A majority of the court are now Dayton appointees, likely ensuring his legacy on the seven-member bench long after he leaves office. He has appointed five justices; former Justice Wilhelmina Wright joined the federal bench earlier this year.
GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty first appointed McKeig to the bench in 2008. She served as a district court judge in the Fourth Judicial District, and she was also presiding judge in the Fourth District’s Family Court. She replaces former Justice Christopher Dietzen, another Pawlenty appointee who retired earlier this year.
Robin Wolpert, president of the Minnesota State Bar Association, praised efforts to diversify the state’s judicial branch, calling it an imperative to ensure all Minnesotans have trust in the courts.
“If the bench does not reflect the society it serves, it creates the reality or the perception that justice is not the same for everyone,” Wolpert said.
She added: “These perceptions hurt our profession and they undermine the power of the judiciary.”
During the hourlong ceremony, a lighter side of McKeig emerged, evident in the anecdotes shared by a former clerk, a close friend and Robert A. Blaeser, a trailblazing jurist who was the first American Indian to serve as a Minnesota district court judge.
Blaeser and Brittney Miller, a former clerk for McKeig, recalled her reputation for practical jokes, including covering a fellow judge’s chambers in aluminum foil. Blaeser recalled when McKeig once dressed from head to toe as Gene Simmons, the lead singer from the rock band KISS.
Humor aside, Blaeser, a mentor to McKeig, told those gathered that “Your new justice is of the people, a hard worker, a very good writer, always thinks of how her decisions will affect the people we serve.”
In her brief remarks to those gathered, McKeig stressed that she will take her role as judge seriously, noting the potential she has to shape Minnesota state law and policies. In her application letter to Dayton, she called serving as a judge the highest public calling for an attorney.
The event prominently featured a drum circle performance by students from the Northland Eagles Drum Group from Northland High School in Remer, Minn., McKeig’s former high school. The White Earth Color Guard posted the colors for the event.
Minnesota will be among 10 states where women make up the majority of the court of last resort, joining Wisconsin, California and Arkansas, among others. Minnesota was the first, achieving that landmark more than two decades ago.
In the waning moments of his tenure, former DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich named a fourth woman, the late Sandra Gardebring, to the Supreme Court in 1991, giving the state’s top court a female majority.
McKeig earned her law degree from Hamline University School of Law in 1992. She earned her bachelor of arts from St. Catherine University in 1989. She previously worked as an assistant county attorney in the child protection division for more than 16 years. She’s also an adjunct professor at Mitchell Hamline Law School.