Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Margaret Chutich applied three times for an appointment to the state’s high court before Gov. Mark Dayton finally chose her in 2016.
Had he not, Chutich said, she likely would have stopped trying. Now she’s facing a new test to stay on the bench. In the only contested race for the seven-member state Supreme Court on the ballot this year, Chutich is facing West St. Paul attorney Michelle MacDonald, a frequent judicial candidate with a history of her own legal problems.
Chutich achieved a distinction when she joined the court more than two years ago as its first openly gay justice. She has deep ties to Minnesota’s legal community, with four years on the Minnesota Court of Appeals and past stints working for the Minnesota attorney general and as a federal prosecutor. It’s helped her cultivate broad support as she defends the seat.
In August, the Minnesota State Bar Association said Chutich won more than 95 percent of the 1,647 votes cast in a statewide poll of attorneys.
“That background has been very useful because, of course, [at] the Supreme Court we have to be generalists,” Chutich said. “I loved being an advocate, I thought I did it well. But I really love the role of being a neutral decisionmaker trying to do what’s right after considering all of the factors in the law that the advocates bring forward.”
MacDonald is running her third campaign for Minnesota Supreme Court. In January, the same court suspended MacDonald’s law license for 60 days, pointing to professional misconduct allegations dating back to 2013. The court stopped short of approving a request by a state regulatory board to have MacDonald undergo a mental health evaluation.
MacDonald, 56, has made abolishing the state’s family court system central to her campaigns for the state’s highest court. She is meanwhile appealing the dismissal of a federal lawsuit brought over her arrest by courtroom deputies during a 2013 child-custody trial of Sandra Grazzini-Rucki — who was herself later convicted of hiding her two daughters from their father for two years.
In 2014, the Minnesota Republican Party initially endorsed MacDonald’s high court bid. But the party distanced itself after it learned of a pending drunken driving case. She was eventually acquitted but convicted of refusing to submit to a breath test and obstructing the legal process during her traffic stop.
In a recent interview, MacDonald singled out Chutich’s sexuality as helping her decide who to challenge in this year’s election. Three other members of the court are on the ballot this year but are unopposed. “It factored in, but it wasn’t the only reason,” MacDonald said. “ … When that came to me, that piece, I’m just like, ‘Yep, that’s the one.’ ”
MacDonald said she views Chutich’s marital status as her right but cast it as a “liberal view” counter to MacDonald’s conservative philosophy.
“Spiritually, the reason why you connect with somebody is to procreate, basically,” MacDonald said. “And I’m pro-life. You can certainly publish that. I’m not afraid to be pro-life.”
Chutich’s legal experience includes serving as deputy attorney general of the Law Enforcement Section in the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, assistant U.S. attorney for Minnesota and four years on the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Chutich, 60, also served as assistant dean at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
She said she never hid her sexuality from peers or loved ones, but said it took some time to get comfortable with it being a topic of discussion when she became a justice. Soon after she joined the court, however, Chutich said she received feedback from Minnesotans who found the story of her legal career inspiring.
“I chafe when people want to reduce me to one aspect of my personality, but I really realize how important it is to the community to be there and to do a good job,” Chutich said.
In 2016, the year Chutich joined the court, it again became majority female for only the second time in its history. Chutich said she had been heartened when she appeared as a lawyer before the first female-majority court — before that, she said, she fielded remarks from other judges about her appearance and encountered judges who employed a paternalistic approach to her objections in court.
“So when I went to [the Minnesota Supreme Court] it was like, ‘Wow, I’m going to be listened to, I’m going to be taken seriously,’ ” Chutich said. “It showed that women can perform at this top level. There is a place for women at that level.”
No GOP endorsement
MacDonald’s bid is again seen as a long-shot by court watchers. She was able to draw 46.5 percent of the vote when she challenged Justice David Lillehaug in 2014, even after Republican Party leaders backed away from her campaign. But in 2016, MacDonald lost to Justice Natalie Hudson, 58.8 to 40.8 percent, and was fined $500 for violating state campaign-finance law when she claimed she was endorsed by a state Republican Party convention committee during her first campaign.
“One might expect that her percentage would increase each time someone ran just given name recognition,” said Bert Kritzer, a University of Minnesota law professor who tracks judicial elections. “On the other hand, you know, her name recognition is probably not positive.”
Several pro-MacDonald signs could be seen outside the Mayo Clinic Civic Center before President Donald Trump’s visit to Rochester this month, but party leaders are again keeping their distance from MacDonald on the campaign trail.
The Minnesota Republican Party did not endorse any judicial candidates at the June state convention in Duluth. Rachael Grooms, a party spokeswoman, said party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan has made no individual judicial endorsements and the party “has not lent any support to [MacDonald’s] campaign.”