Rosalie Wahl, who wore the compassion of a grandmother on her sleeve, and carried a steely resolve within, emerged from a hardscrabble life to become the first woman to serve on the Minnesota Supreme Court. There, she fought to make the justice system more fair for women and minorities.
Wahl, who was appointed to Minnesota’s highest court in 1977 by Gov. Rudy Perpich, wrote more than 500 legal opinions during her 17 years there. She died Monday at age 88.
“She brought a desire for our courts to be fully functioning for every member of society,” said Harriet Lansing, retired senior judge who served 28 years on Minnesota’s Court of Appeals. “She had a sense of the power of the law and the power of the judicial position. … She worked to create the fairest possible processes in the courts.
“She would have been great in any profession she would have chosen because of [her] strength of spirit, quality of mind, her determination and her great ability to make a better world for people,” said Lansing, a longtime friend. “But the fact that she chose the law, that was very lucky for all of us.”
Wahl was a mother of four children when she decided in 1962 to get her law degree from William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, where she was one of only two women in her class. And she was a mother of five by the time she finished, missing just a week of classes when she gave birth to her youngest, said Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist for the Star Tribune who has written a book about Wahl that will be released in the spring.
After graduating in 1967, Wahl joined the newly formed state public defender’s office and within a week found herself arguing a case before the state Supreme Court, Sturdevant said. She would appear before that court 109 times, she said.
Eventually, Wahl caught the attention of Perpich, who appointed her to the Supreme Court to fill a vacancy. She faced a brutal election a year later against three men.
“She had to buck the good ol’ boys,” said Betty Wilson, a longtime friend and a retired Star Tribune political reporter. “The male establishment lined up against her and gave her a hard time.”
Races for the Supreme Court generally are genteel in nature, Sturdevant said, but the 1978 race to oust Wahl was one of the meanest.
But Wahl, the well-spoken, divorced grandmother who pushed for the rights of displaced women and justice for the poor and the disadvantage, won handily. Wahl also won in 1984 and in 1990, retiring at the mandatory age of 70 in 1994.
“She not only had a piercing intellect but she had a wonderful concentration of those values sprouted at the hearth,” Lansing said. “When women came into the legal profession and the judiciary, they brought with them not just values that came out of a marketplace but values that were sprouted at the hearth from the home.
“It was the values of compassion, [the] value of inclusivity, the value of humanity and courage and wisdom, and I think she would add, a mighty heart.”
Many of those values were rooted in rural Kansas, where she grew up tested by hardships. She was 4 years old when her mother died and the family was forced to split up, leaving her and younger brother to be raised by her grandparents. Four years later, Wahl watched in horror as a train barreled into her grandfather and brother, killing them and leaving her and her grandmother to fend for themselves during the depths of the Depression.
Years later, Wahl’s fiancé was killed during a training exercise during World War II.
“She had a very sad upbringing,” Sturdevant said. “It’s the kind that would leave many people bitter and sour on life but she gleaned lessons from it.”
And along the way she became an independent thinker who became known for her compassion and gentle spirit. She’ll be remembered as a trailblazer in Minnesota, say those who knew her well.
“She was amazing,” Lansing said. “She had the fortitude of a pilgrim.”
“Yes, she was a feminist,” Lansing said. “But she also was a humanist. She was committed to the well-being of society across the board.”
In 1973, Wahl, joined William Mitchell as a professor, overseeing the newly formed law clinic at the school.
“She was one of the early pioneers in law clinics,” Lansing said. Rather than just teach law in the classroom, students represented indigent defendants under her supervision. “It was extraordinary. Students experience that the law is a profession of service and trains lawyers for the obligations they’re about to take. It demonstrates the importance of having everyone represented whether or not they can afford an attorney.”
“I love the spunk she had for women,” Sturdevant said. “She always understood there was a battle to be fought to secure justice but she believed the battle could be won. That [we] could make this a better society and that we as women could make our lives better by coming together. … She really believed that justice is for everybody.”
In many ways, Wilson said, Wahl never forgot her humble beginnings in Kansas and the one-room school house in the community of Birch Creek.
“If you get to be a judge, it sometimes goes to people’s heads,” Wilson said. “Not Rosalie. She was always concerned about those who had trouble.”
Services are pending.