DFL Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday announced that he has picked prominent DFL attorney David Lillehaug to fill an upcoming vacancy on the Minnesota Supreme Court, adding a reliable Democrat to the court's Republican-appointed majority.
Lillehaug, a former U.S. Attorney for Minnesota who unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate, has been built into the fabric of Minnesota's political life for decades.
The white-haired, Harvard-trained attorney represented U.S. Sen. Al Franken in his 2008 recount that lasted until 2009, Dayton in his 2010 recount, the next year's government shutdown and the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in last year's redistricting.
Rarely one to shy from the spotlight, Lillehaug has cut a lower profile since last year after he applied to join the Supreme Court to replace retiring Justice Helen Meyer. Ultimately, Dayton selected appeals court judge Wilhelmina Wright, who became the high court's first African-American female member.
Lillehaug, who handles complex litigation at the Fredickson & Byron firm, will replace Justice Paul Anderson. Anderson was an appointee of former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson and will reach mandatory retirement age in May.
On the court, Lillehaug will sit with several justices who had represented partisans before joining the bench.
Justice Chris Dietzen defended then Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Pawlenty during the 2002 campaign before Pawlenty appointed him to the appeals court then the Supreme Court; Justice G. Barry Anderson had worked as a Minnesota Republican Party attorney before his Pawlenty appointment to the court and retiring Justice Paul Anderson worked closely with Carlson before the govern elevated him to the bench.
“How do you get appointed to the Supreme Court? Know the governor, know the governor, know the governor,” said attorney Erick Kardaal, who has worked on the opposite side of cases from Lillehaug.
But political connections are no guarantee of judicial outcomes.
“You don’t get to decide the cases just because you appointed the judge,” said Peter Knapp, professor at William Mitchell College of Law.
Eric Magnuson, a Pawlenty appointee to the court who left the bench in 2010, said the bench tends to moderate former advocates.
“There is a significant difference between being an advocate where you can kind of have tunnel vision and when you are a decision maker,” said Magnuson. Shortly before he left the court, Magnuson sided against Pawlenty in an unallotment case. Lillehaug argued the winning side of that case.
Lillehaug's political connections run even more deeply than those he will join.
Along with representing Democratic candidates and office holders, the former debate team and moot court star has long been a go to operative for debate prep for candidates, often playing a role in developing the lines that would ring for years.
He was a staffer to Walter Mondale's 1984 presidential campaign and worked with late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone and his campaign.
After Wellstone's death in a plane crash shortly before the 2002 election, Lillehaug was a key calming influence as Democrats geared up to finish the campaign with Mondale on the ticket, said Ken Martin, the DFL Party chair who ran Lillehaug's 2000 U.S. Senate campaign.
"David played a huge huge role in that episode, really calming people down, giving people a sense of stability and purpose," Martin said.