Dayton's historic choice: First black female Supreme Court judge

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 20, 2012 - 10:33 PM

Wilhelmina Wright was chosen from a field that included her former U.S. attorney boss, David Lillehaug.

Gov. Mark Dayton on Monday chose Judge Wilhelmina Wright, whose legal education began when her mother fought on her behalf to desegregate schools in Virginia, to be the Minnesota Supreme Court's first black woman.

"It is that experience that really informs my understanding of what it means to be a justice and a judge in Minnesota," Wright said as Dayton announced his decision.

It was Dayton's first appointment to the state's highest court and the first by a DFL governor in more than two decades.

Wright, 48, whose Minnesota experience includes stints as a federal prosecutor, a Ramsey County district judge and a state appellate court judge, replaces Helen Meyer, who is retiring. Wright joins a court with five members appointed by Republican governors and one, Justice Alan Page, who won the seat via election.

The court has been drawn into contentious political battles, including the U.S. Senate recount of 2008, a separation-of-powers dispute over reducing state spending in 2010 and a current dispute over the language and titling of two constitutional amendments headed for the November ballot.

The governor said he was impressed by Wright's "intellectual rigor" as demonstrated in more than 700 opinions she has written in 10 years on the state Court of Appeals. "She can take extremely complex issues, apply the law to them, and apply justice to them, and apply good judgment to them," Dayton said.

He selected Wright over a field that included David Lillehaug, a former U.S. attorney for Minnesota who represented Dayton during the 2010 gubernatorial recount. "Governor Dayton appointed a fine jurist of great integrity," Lillehaug said in a statement.

Wright, of St. Paul, is the daughter of department heads at Norfolk State University in Virginia, attended Yale and Harvard Law School and worked in private practice in Washington, D.C., before coming to the U.S. attorney's office in Minnesota, where Lillehaug was her boss.

Early legal lessons

In the 1970s, nearly two decades after the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision declared racially separate schools unconstitutional, the pace of integration in Norfolk remained sluggish. Virginia was in the last stages of a state-sanctioned "massive resistance" policy that saw many white Virginians send their children to rapidly created private schools to evade desegregation.

"It was my mother's just sheer determination to say, 'the Supreme Court said it, my children deserve to benefit from this court order,'" Wright said. "So my mother stood toe-to-toe with the superintendent of the Norfolk public schools."

Wright attended public schools and said her mother's example and persistence "played a major role in my experience of understanding the rule of law."

She said the Brown case remains the most important to her. Later in her private practice, Wright said, she worked with school districts to "implement the promises of the Brown decision. ... I think it is probably that decision that inspires my work."

Former Gov. Jesse Ventura, of the Independence Party, appointed Wright a Ramsey County judge in 2000, and elevated her to the Court of Appeals in 2002. Former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty once considered her for a state Supreme Court vacancy but did not select her.

On Monday, Wright acknowledged Page, the first black justice on the high court, and Rosalie Wahl, the first woman. She also mentioned Josie Johnson, a longtime civil rights leader and former regent of the University of Minnesota, as a mentor.

"I stand on the shoulders of so many who have paved the way for me," Wright said.

Johnson, who attended the announcement, said Wright "grew up as a product of a period that twisted the law and the courts." The appointment, Johnson said, "is an advance for equal justice under the law."

Wright is married to Dan Schmechel, an executive at Ecolab, and they have one daughter.

The salary of Minnesota Supreme Court justices is $145,981.

Dayton is the first DFL governor since Rudy Perpich, and Perpich's appointment of Sandra Gardebring in January 1991 was the last time a DFL governor named a state Supreme Court justice. A governor's appointment is final and requires no legislative confirmation, but justices eventually must stand for re-election.

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042

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