Justice Paul Anderson retires today after two decades on the state’s high court, where he took part in groundbreaking decisions.
Clerks buzzed in and out of a makeshift office cluttered with legal volumes and classic literature, where Justice Paul Anderson made last-minute revisions to opinions that could shape Minnesota’s legal landscape long after he’s gone.
He had already moved out of his chambers, but that didn’t mean a leisurely end to an illustrious career for the state’s 76th Supreme Court justice, an unabashed populist-progressive who in 20 years played a role in groundbreaking decisions that established the independence of medical examiners, set national standards for mold-related insurance policies, and, of course, declared a winner in the 2008 U.S. Senate recount.
The final flurry was fine with Anderson, 70, who leaves the bench Friday after having reached the mandatory retirement age for Minnesota judges. An institution within an institution, the importance of his job is not lost on him.
“Behind every case there’s a human being, and you can never forget about that,” he said. “You’re affecting human lives. Never, ever lose sight of that.”
Throughout his tenure, Anderson has evolved into one of the Supreme Court’s two liberal judges, alongside Justice Alan Page. A self-described “Eisenhower Republican,” Anderson supported gubernatorial candidate Arne Carlson’s moderate and progressive views, and worked on Carlson’s 1990 campaign committee. Once elected governor, Carlson appointed Anderson chief judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals in 1992, then the high court two years later.
The ensuing two decades meant eloquent opinions written by Anderson, in a language understandable to all Minnesotans — not just attorneys. Peppered with references to Shakespeare or quotes from athletes and physicists, they were intelligent, yet accessible. In a recent March concurring opinion, he compared a state adoption law to the admonition given to children learning to cross the street: ‘First look left, and then look right, then look left again.”
Page, who is among Anderson’s closest colleagues and stands most like him ideologically, described Anderson as a judge who realizes the job is about more than a black robe.
“It’s easy to sit up here in these wonderful surroundings and think you’re the end-all be-all and life sort of revolves around you,” he said. “But this institution, at least in my view, is more important than anything I do here, and Justice Anderson understands that. Paul understands that.”
Anderson will be replaced by former U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug, who despite a recent diagnosis of throat cancer, will begin his term June 3.
‘All about legacy’
A conversation with Anderson is a game of intellectual pinball.
Focus and reflex are key in tracking the silver sphere of his mind as it careens from the wisdom of Aristotle, bounces off the legal weight of jury verdicts and backspins at the mention of “The Shoemaker,” an opera about a fallen angel seeking redemption on Earth.
Then, for a brief moment, the pinball stops.
“It’s about the nature of the human condition; it’s about kindness and treating your fellow man well,” Anderson reflected on the opera, which he and his wife helped to commission last year with a group of fellow church members. “It’s all part of the legacy question: What do you leave behind you in various ways?”
An Eden Prairie dairy farm kid with deep roots (Anderson Lakes are named for his family), he decided at age 14 that “I didn’t want to milk cows for the rest of my life.” He was the son of a former teacher and always interested in civics, which led to a career in the law. He would go on to become the first attorney in his family. After graduating from the University of Minnesota Law School and working in a neighborhood legal services office, he became an assistant attorney general in Minnesota. He then moved on to specialize in real estate, probate and business law for LeVander, Gillen and Miller for 21 years.
Anderson last ran for re-election in 2008, and he’s glad he stayed on. The last five years on the court have been the most interesting, he said, with decisions in the Al Franken-Norm Coleman Senate race and failed legal challenges to the same-sex marriage and voter ID constitutional amendments, which were ultimately rejected by voters. He doesn’t know how many majority opinions, dissents or concurrences he’s written, but they fill 10 legal-size bound volumes. He can’t say which of them he’s most proud of, or which was the defining case of his career.
“It’s Sophie’s Choice,” he said, referencing the Holocaust-era novel when a mother is forced to make an unbearable decision. “They’re all my darlings.”