Former U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug has what it takes to be a fine Minnesota Supreme Court justice. He’s whip-smart, articulate, hard-working and schooled in the law.
Gov. Mark Dayton’s newest high court appointee has also been the DFL Party’s go-to elections attorney – a fact that raises independent, Republican and a few idealistic DFL eyebrows too. Though Lillehaug won the blessing of the semi-independent Commission on Judicial Selection, some see his appointment as a throwback to the time when judgeships were distributed as political spoils.
“Nothing wrong with that,” Justice Paul Anderson, whose seat Lillehaug will take when Anderson retires in May, seemed to be saying Tuesday. A background that includes legal service to one's party is good preparation for Supreme Court service, Anderson allowed.
Anderson would know. He was Arne Carlson’s attorney in 1990 in a case that got Carlson’s name on the November ballot just in time for him to be elected governor. A Supreme Court appointment ensued. Other recent governors of both major parties have similarly rewarded their courtroom warriors.
One governor who didn’t paid a price for his high-mindedness. Republican Gov. Elmer Andersen was in the middle of the post-1962 election recount when he appointed a former Liberal (now DFL) legislator from Mankato, Robert Sheran, to the high court.
Andersen was solving a problem on the court, he told me years later. It took his promise to appoint Sheran to convince another justice who was failing to retire. But that arrangement wasn’t disclosed at the time.
Dozens of Republican volunteers who were staffing the recount were furious. “What good is it to have a Republican governor if he appoints Democrats to the court?” one attorney sputtered to Andersen’s recount manager Tom Swain.
Andersen went on to lose to DFLer Karl Rolvaag by 91 votes; his party rejected his comeback attempt in 1966. Sheran went on to become one of the most acclaimed chief justices in state history. Late in life, Elmer would say with a chuckle, “There’s only so much good government that people can stand.”
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