Courts beat: A literary master of the legal world

  • Article by: PAT PHEIFER
  • Star Tribune
  • May 24, 2013 - 9:54 AM

In the dust-up between Norm Coleman and Al Franken over Minnesota’s U.S. Senate seat, state Supreme Court Justice Paul H. Anderson quoted from Tom Stoppard’s play “Jumpers” in the high court’s ruling: “It’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting.”

In other rulings, he’s illustrated his point by quoting Shakespeare, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Lewis Carroll, Richard Nixon and Humpty Dumpty.

The masterful author and amanuensis has reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 and will leave the high court May 31. But he promised more illuminating literary allusions in the coming weeks.

His dissent in a ruling released Wednesday was a classic.

The case involved a woman who altered a doctor’s prescription for cough syrup with codeine in Worthington, Minn., in 2006. It was her one and only crime. In 2011, the woman’s records were expunged, or sealed, by a Nobles County judge to help her achieve her “lifelong dream of becoming an accountant.”

It’s a fairly common practice, but in this case, the state appealed, arguing that the lower court exceeded its authority by sealing records held by agencies such as the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

A majority of the seven Supreme Court justices agreed. Anderson began his dissent opinion with an exchange between Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert in “Les Miserables”:

“But this is common humanity! Are you a machine?” Valjean asks.

“I am an officer of the law doing my duty,” Javert counters. “I have no choice in the matter. It makes no difference what I think or feel or want.”

The same theme continued throughout the 33-page dissent.

“Are those of us who administer Minnesota’s criminal justice system turning a blind eye to common humanity?” he asks. “Are we incapable of recognizing and acknowledging a sincere attempt to seek redemption?”

And in conclusion, he writes, the majority opinion “misinterprets and misapplies both the constitution and our case law” and “eviscerates the judiciary’s ability to perform” a key function.


Pat Pheifer • 952-746-3284

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