Gov. Mark Dayton on Friday named the first openly gay person to the Minnesota Supreme Court, saying that Margaret Chutich impressed him so much during a previous interview that he didn’t screen anyone else when the vacancy arose.
“I was born and raised in Minnesota, so serving on this court is really meaningful to me,” Chutich said at a news conference, as her wife, 16-year-old daughter and other family members watched from the audience.
Chutich has been a judge on the Minnesota Court of Appeals since the governor appointed her four years ago. She will fill the opening left by Wilhelmina Wright, another Dayton appointee — and the first black woman on the state’s highest court — who was confirmed by the Senate this week to fill a vacancy on the U.S. District Court of Minnesota.
Dayton acknowledged his interest in diversifying the ranks of the judiciary, but said that Chutich “is a phenomenal appointment, and I would have selected her regardless of that consideration.”
She’s the third woman, and fourth appointee overall, whom the governor has named to the Supreme Court since taking office in 2011.
Chutich previously served as assistant dean at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, deputy attorney general of the Law Enforcement Section in the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office and assistant U.S. attorney for Minnesota.
The 57-year-old Minneapolis resident unsuccessfully sought the appointment several times. The Judicial Selection Committee recommended her for a Supreme Court judgeship 3½ years ago, but the governor appointed Wright instead. Chutich interviewed for the role again last summer, but lost out to Appeals Court Judge Natalie Hudson.
Still, Dayton said he was so impressed with Chutich at the time that he decided it would be “inefficient and, in a sense, unfair” to put other candidates through the screening process once he learned of Wright’s appointment to the federal court.
“It is important that the court reflect the community it serves, and I also think symbolism is very important,” said Chutich, who lives in Minneapolis. “If there are gay attorneys, gay people thinking about going to law school, I think it’s important that they know there aren’t barriers to their dreams.”
Appeals Court Chief Judge Edward Cleary described Chutich as very driven. “Margaret’s very intelligent, and she’s compassionate,” he said. “When you combine those two qualities, you have an opportunity to make a great impact.”
Noting the attention to her being openly gay, Cleary added: “She’s much more than that, and it would be unfortunate if that’s the only message the world gets. … She has the intelligence and experience and qualities to get there on her own.”
Dayton said Chutich wrote more than 200 opinions and handled 650 cases while on the Appeals Court.
In 2013, Chutich wrote the opinion upholding Amy Senser’s criminal vehicle homicide conviction, saying that evidence showed Senser knew she hit more than a traffic barrel when she struck and killed a man on a Minneapolis freeway ramp before driving off.
In October, Chutich voted in a 2-1 decision to overturn the conviction of a man sentenced to five years in prison for refusing to take a blood test after he was arrested in Ramsey County for drunken driving, a move that could have broad implications for the police. The Appeals Court found that authorities should have obtained a search warrant from a judge to draw blood in the case and that the driver’s right to due process had been violated.
At the Supreme Court, Chutich’s arrival won’t significantly move the body in one direction or another, said Ted Sampsell-Jones, a Mitchell Hamline School of Law professor who has argued criminal cases before her at the Appeals Court. He said that’s because, like Wright, she’s a fairly centrist to slightly progressive judge.
“She’s very straightforward,” Sampsell-Jones said. “Governor Dayton has not shown any tendency to appoint people who are really ideological. … It’s not like she’s written a lot of crazy, controversial, blockbuster opinions, because she really is a moderate judge.”
He stressed that the next appointment, rather, could be the big one. Justice Christopher Dietzen will reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 in a little over a year, opening the way for Dayton to change the ideological composition of the court. Four out of seven of its members, including Dietzen, were appointed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty; the rest were picked by Dayton, a DFLer.
Bratvold to Appeals Court
The governor appointed Hennepin County District Judge Diane Bratvold to take Chutich’s place on the Appeals Court. Dayton had appointed her as a district judge in 2014. She is an adjunct professor in appellate advocacy at the University of St. Thomas School of Law and an officer of the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers. Before that, she served as a shareholder with Briggs and Morgan.
Bratvold represented gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer and the Republican Party of Minnesota in the 2010 election recount against Dayton, arguing before the state Supreme Court that election officials should have to reconcile the number of ballots and voter signatures. Emmer conceded to Dayton five weeks after the election.