For years, the face of diversity in Minnesota’s court system was former pro football player Alan Page, who was elected to an open seat on the state Supreme Court in 1992, becoming its first black jurist.
But apart from Page, one of the Vikings’ famed “Purple People Eaters,” minority judges — and women — were a rarity in Minnesota courtrooms, even as the state’s population grew increasingly diverse.
One of Gov. Tim Walz’s broad campaign themes last year was to make his administration’s appointments more reflective of the state’s shifting demographics. With the recent appointment of two Court of Appeals judges — one Hispanic, one Jewish — the DFL governor’s first-year record on the courts is in the books.
More than a third of the 14 district and appellate judges appointed overall by the governor have been people of color, according to data obtained from the governor’s office. More than half have been women.
For the first-term DFL governor, selecting judges represents one of the less splashy but most consequential responsibilities of the office, a quiet process that takes place outside of the noisy legislative battles over taxes, road money and health care.
“This will be some of the most lasting things that you do,” Walz said in a recent interview.
The shifting racial composition of the state’s courts comes amid a growing national awareness of the role race plays in policing, sentencing and incarceration. The governor’s first year of judicial selection is in marked contrast with the record of President Donald Trump at the federal level, where the president’s more than 150 appointments have skewed overwhelmingly white and male. Yet the vast majority of the country’s judicial business takes place in the state courts across the country, which have seen a shift toward more judges of color and women on the bench.
Walz’s predecessor, former DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, more than doubled the overall racial diversity of the state bench after eight years in office. As recently as 10 years ago, 6% of Minnesota state court judges were people of color, according to a 2009 American Bar Association report. By 2014, that number had ticked up to 15%, according to a survey by the progressive American Constitution Society.
Three decades ago, barely 1 of every 10 judges in Minnesota were women. Now nearly half of them are.
That includes state Supreme Court Justice Natalie Hudson, who Dayton appointed in 2015 to replace Page, who retired at age 70. Hudson is the second black woman on the high court, after Wilhelmina Wright, appointed by Dayton in 2012. Since Wright was elevated to the federal bench by former President Barack Obama, Hudson is one of two minority women on the court, along with Anne McKeig, the first Native American to serve on the Minnesota Supreme Court. The court also includes Justice Margaret Chutich, appointed by Dayton as its first openly gay member.
But the growing diversity in Minnesota’s courtrooms traces to decisions made long before judicial candidates’ résumés fall on the governor’s desk. In Minnesota, judges are either elected to the state courts when vacancies occur during general election years or, more commonly, appointed by the governor in all other years. For the past 30 years, governors have relied on the Judicial Selection Commission — made up of 49 lawyers and non-attorneys — to make their picks.
Walz acknowledges that he doesn’t have his finger on the pulse of the legal community and is leaning heavily on the commission and its new chairwoman, Lola Velazquez-Aguilu, an attorney for Medtronic and former federal prosecutor. He says Velazquez-Aguilu is one of the most important picks he’s made.
Velazquez-Aguilu, who also worked during the Dayton administration to train prospective judicial candidates, said she’s seen many qualified minority candidates initially overlooked. One of her first initiatives was to train the commission’s members on recognizing the implicit biases that can curb candidates of color’s chances.
One training exercise is based on a 2014 study that found the same piece of legal writing rated differently depending on whether reviewers were told it was authored by a black or white attorney. Velazquez-Aguilu also sought to ask candidates the same set of questions during interviews to eliminate subjective biases. Under Velazquez-Aguilu, the commission is also asking applicants to submit writing samples that are graded blindly.
“It’s not to tilt the scales in favor of any one group of people,” Velazquez-Aguilu said. “It’s to even the scales. It’s to level the playing field. It’s to eliminate the sort of unfairness that has held certain communities back, and it’s to clear a path so that we can truly allow the best person forward.”
The process has so far yielded appointments like Darlene Rivera Spalla, former Mahnomen County Attorney and a tribal attorney for the White Earth Band; Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal as the Court of Appeals’ first Jewish judge; and new Ramsey County Judge Reynaldo Aligada, a former federal defender.
“These are far more than just bench positions,” Walz said. “They are pillars of the community that are viewed as being critical.”
Ramsey County Judge Jeffrey Bryan, one of Walz’s two Court of Appeals picks, helped the Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association endorse judicial candidates. Having interviewed under both the Dayton and Walz administrations, Bryan, whose mother is of Mexican descent, said the latest round of interviews included a more extensive round of “due diligence”: Commissioners sought references from up to 40 people who knew Bryan professionally, but who may not have been well-known to all commissioners.
“Sometimes that can be an insular process — so if you have a 60-year-old white male on the commission who’s going to call his friends, they’re many times looking like him and it’s hard to have the inclusion you desire without breaking out of those networks,” Bryan said.
Velazquez-Aguilu previously led the state chapter of the Infinity Project, a group aimed at increasing gender diversity in the federal courts. Borrowing from political groups like EMILY’s List, which recruits women who support abortion rights to run for office, she organized training sessions that demystify the judicial selection process. She said she also discovered the power of recruitment, especially among women and attorneys of color who may be qualified for the bench but do not believe that they have the right experience to climb the ladder.
“They need somebody else to say, ‘you’re ready, it’s time, you’ve done enough,’ ” Velazquez-Aguilu said.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea, just the second woman to serve in that role, recently attended a retrospective on a gender fairness task force set up by the Supreme Court 30 years ago, before Page retired: At the time, she said, just 10% of the state’s trial court judges were women — a number that has grown to 49% today.
“That’s a remarkable change,” Gildea said. “There are certainly more female attorneys now, and I think there has been a really deliberate effort to recruit women to these positions and to appoint qualified women to these positions under this administration and under prior administrations.”
George Soule, a Minneapolis attorney who chaired the state’s Judicial Selection Commission under Gov. Jesse Ventura and was a vice chair under Gov. Arne Carlson, said relying on a commission also “takes the politics” out of the process.
“It used to be that judicial candidates and their supporters would lobby the governor directly for their appointment,” Soule said. “Now the governor doesn’t have to be susceptible to that because each of the governors have used the commission exclusively or almost exclusively.”
Walz said he is now beginning to plan for what will be his first Minnesota Supreme Court appointment when Justice David Lillehaug retires in July. If Velazquez-Aguilu has her way, the governor will have a vast pool of candidates to consider, further dispelling long-held assumptions that diverse judges weren’t being appointed because not enough candidates were applying.
“That’s not true,” said Bryan, the Court of Appeals appointee. “We were always there.”