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The U.S. Senate has confirmed Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Wilhelmina Marie Wright to fill a vacancy on the U.S. District Court of Minnesota, making her the state’s first black female federal judge and ending nearly a year of waiting.
Wright was confirmed after a 58-36 vote on Tuesday.
Democratic Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken both recommended Wright in February 2015, and the Judiciary Committee unanimously approved her nomination in September.
“She is someone that deserves to be on the federal bench,” Klobuchar told the Star Tribune after Tuesday’s vote. “At a time of incredible gridlock she was able to walk the gantlet.”
Wright replaces former Chief Federal Judge Michael Davis, who became a senior judge on Aug. 1 and was the state’s first black federal judge. Klobuchar said filling Davis’ vacancy in 171 days was “actually remarkably fast,” adding that the average time a seat is vacant is 514 days.
Klobuchar began Tuesday’s hearing by making her case for Wright to fill a vacancy deemed a “judicial emergency” by the U.S. Judicial Conference, noting a 57 percent spike in federal cases in Minnesota.
Wright weathered a push by Heritage Action for America urging Republican senators to vote no. It cited contributions in 1989 in a law review she wrote while as a student that were seen as critical of President Ronald Reagan, the chief justice and property rights.
Wright called her remarks “inartful” during her September confirmation hearing. But the articles did not preclude support from such Republican policymakers as Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, former Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Rep. Erik Paulsen. Fourteen Republican senators voted to confirm Wright Tuesday.
Wright graduated from Harvard Law School in 1989 and is the only jurist in state history to serve as a state district court judge, appellate court judge and state Supreme Court justice.
“It’s very hard to get that kind of judicial experience — even on the federal bench,” said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor and judicial selection expert.
Gov. Mark Dayton, who appointed Wright as the state’s first black female Supreme Court justice in 2012, congratulated her Tuesday.
“Justice Wright’s deep commitment to public service and her excellent judgment will serve the federal judiciary well,” Dayton said in a statement.
Born in Norfolk, Va., Wright joined the U.S. attorney’s office in Minnesota in 1995, helping prosecute complex economic fraud and violent crimes. Before that, she worked at a law firm in Washington, D.C., representing school districts across the country.
Chief Judge John Tunheim welcomed Wright on Tuesday and said he expects her to join the bench soon after completing her duties as a Supreme Court justice.
“She will be an outstanding federal trial judge and I personally am really looking forward to working with her,” Tunheim said in an e-mail.