Not long after learning that she would be challenged on the November ballot, Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge Lucinda Jesson decided to dump copies of each judicial opinion she authored since joining the bench in 2016 onto a suddenly necessary campaign website.
“I know there’s always going to be some legal jargon, but I’ve tried to write opinions so that normal Minnesotans can understand them,” Jesson said in an interview this week. “So, I guess this is my test.”
Jesson, who was commissioner of the state’s Department of Human Services before being appointed to the court by Gov. Mark Dayton, faces St. Paul private attorney Anthony L. Brown in the first electoral challenge of a state Appeals Court judge since 2010.
But before their Election Day showdown, the two will first meet Thursday in a forum organized by the League of Women Voters in Golden Valley. Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Margaret Chutich and her challenger, West St. Paul attorney Michelle MacDonald, have also been invited.
The pair of appellate court races are among just eight contested judicial seats this year; the remainder of the 97 judicial seats on the ballot are uncontested. Brown, 41, will be running in his first judicial contest partly, he said, to give voters a say in a process that often finds the governor picking jurists whose entire tenure on the bench can pass unchallenged. He and Jesson are competing for a six-year term.
“Part of my goal in this is to force judges to get out there and talk to the community,” Brown said. “Encourage lawyers to run so that the public can get the opportunity to get more educated.”
Brown — who goes by “A.L.” — said he decided to run against Jesson, 60, because of his desire to serve on the court and because Jesson had the least amount of tenure among at-large judges on the ballot.
Brown has practiced law for about 18 years since moving to Minnesota from Chicago to attend Hamline University’s law school. He works in both civil and criminal law, contracts with the Ramsey County public defender’s office and provides legal counsel for a student loan business. Brown previously clerked for U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, whom he counts as a chief legal influence.
Before she joined the court, Jesson spent five years leading the massive Department of Human Services through a period that saw an expansion of community based mental health treatment, efforts to crack down on fraudulent health insurance billing and a historic federal court challenge to the state’s sex offender treatment program.
Jesson was also on Dayton’s shortlist for the Minnesota Supreme Court earlier this year. An Arkansas native, she has practiced law privately, taught at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, worked as a deputy Hennepin County attorney under now-U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and as deputy attorney general.
Marie Failinger, a professor at Mitchell Hamline who previously worked with Jesson at the law school, suggested Jesson’s resume helped prepare her for the breadth of cases spanning criminal law to challenges of state agency decisions that the court routinely takes up.
“She understands the problems that administrators have with these programs, but she has also represented people who have gone against the government,” Failinger said. “She can see how the government can ignore or really mess with your life and maybe not even realize it because of the bureaucratic structure.”
Both Jesson and Brown are St. Paul residents. Brown, who practices at Capitol City Law Group in St. Paul, has also served as chairman of St. Paul’s Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity, co-chair for the Innocence Project of Minnesota and on the executive board of the Minnesota State Bar Association.
“The case I make for myself is I understand that I’m issuing the decision from St. Paul but that it may very well cause someone a sleepless night,” Brown said. “That this isn’t a math problem we’re solving, that this is a person behind this decision and I’ve got to do my level best to work the tools I have as the law permits.”
Jesson, meanwhile, said she has sought to maintain community connections since entering a profession with a reputation for being walled off. She serves on nonprofit boards including Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota and a new nonprofit aimed at improving population health in rural Minnesota.
She followed her father’s footsteps into jurisprudence: Bradley Jesson was chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court and saw his daughter appointed in Minnesota before his death in 2016.
“One of his last words when I was able to go down and see him during the last week of his life … he said, ‘Hello, Judge,’ ” Jesson said, tearing up.