Minnesota justice, an old-school Republican, hits retirement age

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 1, 2013 - 4:49 PM

Last in a line? Justice Paul Anderson reflects on his career and on the changes we’ve seen.

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Retiring Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson came to the Supreme Court chambers in the Capitol to have his portrait taken but couldn't resist talking to this group of school kids from Forest Lake on the importance of the legislative branch of government. He asked if they thought he was perfect and got a resounding "no" and said thats why we need seven justices on the court, because each brings a different point of view. Thursday, May 30, 2013 ] GLEN STUBBE * gstubbe@startribune.com ORG XMIT: MIN1305301603560610

Among the items Justice Paul Anderson packed in recent days as he concluded nearly 19 years on the Minnesota Supreme Court is a set of bound, green volumes containing his official opinions, written either for the court’s majority, in concurrence or in dissent.

It’s already a large set, consuming more than 15 inches of shelf space, though it does not yet include his prolific last year on the seven-member high court. He reached the judicial branch’s mandatory retirement age, 70, on May 14; Friday was his last day as Justice Anderson.

What’s notable is that as the dates on the covers advance, the volumes thicken. Over time, Anderson’s output increased — or, more to the point, the frequency of his dissents increased. There were eight in 2005; 16 in 2009; 20 in 2012. Last year, among opinions written by Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea that generated dissents, Anderson sided with the Pawlenty-appointed chief just 29 percent of the time.

Anderson often found a partner in the court’s most-senior and most-dissenting justice, Alan Page. But he also often wrote alone — not for the edification of his colleagues, he explained last week, but for the sake of present and future Legislatures, governors and people of Minnesota. He’s felt the weight of upholding a proud but fading governmental tradition in Minnesota — and an awareness that he may be the last in a distinct political lineage.

I call it “Harold’s Line” — Harold being Gov. Stassen, the Boy Wonder governor, elected at age 32 in 1938 after first defeating an old-line GOP conservative in the primary. Stassen moved the Minnesota Republican Party nearer to the center of American democracy’s philosophical spectrum.

Anderson was a dairy farm kid from Eden Prairie with an intellectually gifted mother and a civic-minded father who revered Stassen and the like-minded governor elected in 1946, Luther Youngdahl. The boy gravitated to their brand of politics. When Anderson was an eighth-grader in 1956, he gave a school speech backing Stassen’s suggestion that Vice President Richard Nixon be removed from the GOP ticket. Nixon was too conservative for the party’s good, he argued.

As a Macalester College student, Anderson “adored” then-Gov. Elmer L. Andersen, who had been a young leader in Stassen’s 1938 campaign.

As a new University of Minnesota Law School graduate in 1968, Anderson was cochair of Students for Nelson Rockefeller. That role brought him into the orbit of Rockefeller backers including Wheelock Whitney and George and Sally Pillsbury, and linked him with the organization’s staffer Lars Carlson and his brother Arne.

In 1971, just as retiring Gov. Harold LeVander resumed his South St. Paul legal practice, Anderson joined LeVander’s firm. He practiced with the former governor for 18 years, and became acquainted with LeVander’s gubernatorial chief of staff, Dave Durenberger, who worked for Elmer Andersen at H.B. Fuller Co. before his successful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1978.

When Arne Carlson ran for governor in 1990, Anderson chaired the campaign’s executive committee. When Carlson came in second in that year’s GOP primary, Anderson thought his politicking was done for the year.

But lightning struck; primary winner Jon Grunseth stepped aside; Anderson assembled a crackerjack legal team to help put Carlson’s name on the ballot, and on Nov. 7, Minnesotans awoke to the news that Arne Carlson was their next governor.

Carlson appointed Anderson to the Court of Appeals in 1992 and to the Supreme Court in 1994.

Stassen, Youngdahl, Andersen, LeVander, Durenberger, Whitney, Pillsbury, Carlson — and Justice Paul Anderson. That’s Harold’s Line. In its prime it was a richly branched political family tree that also extended to dozens of local officials, legislators and members of Congress.

The tree’s connective tissue was a shared view about government’s rightful role — a view that is out of fashion in Republican circles today.

“Government can’t guarantee happiness for people. It’s beyond government’s ability. That was where my disagreement was with Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society,” Anderson said last week about the ideas this Republican tribe shared. “But government has a very definite role to provide the maximum opportunity for the maximum number of people to achieve happiness. You want a civil society populated by happy people, and government has a definite role in making that happen. It’s public safety, infrastructure, communication, education — and I would argue health care fits into that.

“That view is very patriotic. It’s what this country is about. Those who want to make government small enough to drown in a bathtub? That’s not patriotic.”

Foremost on the list of government’s duties is the cause to which Anderson has devoted himself through 21 years on Minnesota’s appellate bench — equal justice under the law. He’s pushed to strip bias against women and minorities from the courts. He’s been a vigorous defender of the state Constitution. He’s prided himself in treating all comers with decency and respect.

He’s been a leading face of justice in Minnesota. He’d turn up in Fergus Falls one night and Albert Lea the next — and China the next month and Africa the next year — to discuss the rule of law. Last week while meeting this scribe and a photographer in the old Capitol courtroom, two touring grade-school classes filed in. Anderson couldn’t resist. He gave each a lively impromptu lesson on the system of checks and balances.

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