The Star Tribune's Lori Sturdevant examines the life and legacy of the first woman named to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Rosalie Wahl was the first woman named to the Minnesota Supreme Court. She served from 1977 until her retirement in 1994, surviving three re-election challenges, the first of which was quite contentious. The story is among those told in “Her Honor: Rosalie Wahl and the Minnesota Women’s Movement,” by Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist Lori Sturdevant.
Rosalie Wahl would be worthy to be remembered if all she had done was break the gender barrier on the Minnesota Supreme Court. But Wahl, who died last year at age 88, was more than a female first. She was the leader of a successful effort to bring a greater measure of fairness and respect to all of the women involved in the Minnesota judicial system, from the lowliest defendants to high court judges.
Wahl’s story and its context — Minnesota’s experience with America’s most far-reaching 20th-century movement for social change — are told in a new book, “Her Honor: Rosalie Wahl and the Minnesota Women’s Movement,” by Star Tribune columnist and editorial writer Lori Sturdevant (Minnesota Historical Society Press). Two excerpts follow. The first comes from the story of Wahl’s 1978 election campaign against formidable competition to retain the Supreme Court seat to which Gov. Rudy Perpich appointed her in 1977:
The 1978 campaign to unseat Rosalie Wahl rebuts the notion that Minnesota has never witnessed the rough-and-tumble judicial electioneering that erodes respect for the courts. … Precisely this sort of campaign was waged against Rosalie. …
Each of Rosalie’s challengers denied that her gender had inspired his candidacy, but each argued that in experience, training, and perspective she was unqualified for the high court — an argument sure to resonate with those who doubted that women belonged in judicial robes. …
Of the three men challenging Rosalie, [Robert] Mattson [Sr.] was the best known and most clearly identified with socially conservative traditionalists in the DFL Party. … His political mentors included federal judge Miles Lord, for whom Mattson had served as chief deputy while Lord was attorney general in the 1950s, and governor Karl Rolvaag. … The latter appointed Mattson in 1964 to complete [Walter Mondale’s term as attorney general]. He left that post two years later without seeking re-election, telling reporters … he could not afford to serve in the $18,000 a year post. Rosalie’s job paid $49,000 in 1978, a sum he evidently considered sufficient. …
Wahl and her backers were about to experience how vicious judicial politics could be — even in a “Minnesota nice” state in which judges do not wear party labels. Beginning three weeks after the primary, Mattson launched a series of newspaper ads criticizing Wahl’s opinions in selected supreme court cases. They portrayed her as “soft” on rape and drug trafficking, insufficiently respectful of police work, and at odds with state law.
Mattson was seriously distorting Wahl’s record. … When reporters asked Mattson to explain his ads’ contention that her ‘vote’ in [disputed] cases “is inconsistent with Minnesota law,” he responded that every dissent from the court’s majority opinion is inconsistent with the law, because the majority opinion is the law. … He was voicing stunning hostility toward dissenting opinions. …
The harsh tone and dubious veracity of Mattson’s critique rallied the state’s legal and political establishment to Wahl’s defense. … Her best chance to defend herself against Mattson’s charges came just four days before the election, at a debate between the two supreme court candidates sponsored by the Ramsey County Bar Association. When he reiterated his by-then familiar litany of accusations against Wahl, she was ready. She explained that she had upheld convictions in the vast majority of the approximately 130 criminal cases that the high court had seen in the previous year and added that the cases Mattson faulted were dissents based on U.S. Supreme Court decisions. “I was defending not only the rights of criminals, but your rights and my rights,” she said. Noting that misrepresentation of facts is a violation of the code of judicial ethics, she continued, “If people want to judge between the candidates for this office, they might want to look no further than the kind of campaign that is being waged.”
Voters unaccustomed to such intense fire in a judicial campaign evidently were watching. Many Minnesota women identified with Rosalie. Many had themselves struggled against gender-based barriers to establish careers. Many had started or restarted careers after raising families, or looked forward to doing so one day, and valued Rosalie’s example.
Many knew the pain of divorce and admired a woman who achieved self-sufficiency in its aftermath. Many who heard Rosalie speak to female audiences were touched as she called on women to support each other’s ambitions. “Most of us, imprinted by our culture with a sense of our own limits, need to know that the horizons are wider than we ever thought they were,” she said to an AAUW chapter in May — one of only a few of her 1978 campaign speeches preserved with a full text. “We need to nourish in ourselves and each other a newfound sense of self-esteem.”
Even Rosalie’s appearance helped connect her with voters. She looked like somebody’s friendly grandmother — which she was. (Her eldest grandchild, Sean Christopher Wahl, was eight years old in 1978. Five more grandchildren would be born in the ensuing fourteen years.)
The court appointee who represented a breakthrough for the state’s feminist movement seventeen months earlier had become an emblem of the aspirations of half the population. Rosalie won a bigger victory on November 6 than her most ardent supporters six months earlier had dared to predict. She took 57 percent of the vote, 719,234 to 551,521. That solid victory assured that, though she would stand for election again in 1984 and 1990, she would not again face serious electoral opposition to remain on the court. But its import was much larger. Wahl’s success gave future governors a green light to appoint women to the state’s judicial benches. The political establishment was now on notice that women in judicial robes were acceptable to Minnesotans.
The book concludes with a status report on the women’s movement of the 20th century and a summons for a new generation of Minnesota women to revive its unmet goals:
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