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Gov. Tim Pawlenty elevated Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea to chief justice on Thursday and named University of Minnesota law Prof. David Stras an associate justice, moves expected to preserve the court's conservative tilt.
DLFers immediately denounced the appointments as political. Gubernatorial candidate Mark Dayton noted that Stras clerked for conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and serves on the executive committee of the conservative Federalist Society but has no experience as a judge and was admitted to the Minnesota bar only eight months ago.
"Once again, Governor Pawlenty has sacrificed the best interests of Minnesotans for his presidential ambitions," said Dayton. "...Clearly the governor had no interest in appointing the best-qualified person."
Stras, 35, said he has been a member of the bars of New York, Kansas and the District of Columbia for eight to 10 years, and Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung noted Stras also was admitted to practice before the U.S. and Minnesota Supreme Courts.
"The claim that Justice Stras isn't familiar with Minnesota law is ridiculous," McClung said. "He's a tenured professor and recognized legal scholar at Minnesota's leading law school. The quality, depth and scope of his experience is impressive."
Gildea, 48, will replace Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, who announced in March he will step down June 30 after only two years on the bench. Stras will take Gildea's place on the seven-member court.
Gildea was in the minority that sided with the governor when the court recently rebuked his single-handed "unallotment" budget cuts. Stras wrote a brief supporting Pawlenty's actions. DFL critics say Pawlenty paid them back Thursday.
Pawlenty explained the appointments by saying he looks for justices who "interpret the law as written" and use "judicial restraint." He said his other criteria include legal abilities and service to the community.
Gildea served only a few months on the Hennepin County bench before joining the high court in 2006. She is a former assistant Hennepin County attorney and associate general counsel for the university. She lives in Minneapolis. Her husband, Andy Gildea, works with the House GOP caucus.
She is the state's second female chief justice, and she paid tribute to the first, Kathleen Blatz, and to the court's first woman, Rosalie Wahl: "Thank you for lighting your lamps so my path is easier, and my road is more clear."
Gildea becomes the top advocate for the court system as its budget shrinks and some are pushing for its redesign. Magnuson clashed fiercely with Pawlenty over money for the courts.
Gildea said she will defer discussions about what changes she will seek until after Magnuson's departure. She promised to help the courts "pivot from challenge to opportunity," and she quoted John F. Kennedy: "United there's little we cannot do."
Pawlenty said she "has exhibited common sense, a strong intellect, and a commitment to the idea that judges should fairly and appropriately interpret the law, not create it themselves."
Gildea, Magnuson and Justices Christopher Dietzen and G. Barry Anderson formed a conservative bloc on the court, and when Magnuson announced his departure, the other three interviewed for the top job. Justices Paul H. Anderson, Helen Meyer and Alan Page comprise the remainder.
William Mitchell College of Law Prof. Peter Knapp said Thursday's appointments signal "no dramatic change in direction of the court."
Pawlenty called Stras "one of the brightest legal scholars in Minnesota" and "extremely well-versed in appellate matters."
Stras said he believes "the role of judges is a limited one, safeguarding liberty and protecting the rights of all citizens."
Knapp said it's typical for law professors to refrain from immediately seeking admission to the bar in the state where they teach. He said Stras has an "excellent reputation" as an academic, primarily through writings and speeches on federal issues. "It will be interesting to see where he lands once he turns his attention to state law," Knapp said.
Notably, Stras wrote a paper suggesting that U.S. Supreme Court justices return to the pre-Civil War habit of hearing cases throughout the country, so they can apply their precedents.
Stras said he is especially proud of an article he spent years researching, challenging former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Pierce Butler's reputation as a one-dimensional conservative by citing his pro-defendant rulings.
Stras has been on the University of Minnesota Law School faculty since 2004. He and his wife live in Minnetonka with their children.
The chief justice is paid $160,579 a year, and associates receive $145,981.
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747