The formal announcement Monday of Wilhelmina Wright's elevation from the state Court of Appeals to the Supreme Court could have been all about her. Her distinction as Minnesota's first African-American female associate justice deserves notice. So do her impressive credentials -- Harvard Law, law review editor, assistant U.S. attorney, Ramsey County District court, 10 years and more than 700 opinions on the Court of Appeals.
But with grace and eloquence, Wright, 48, turned the occasion into a history lesson. A native of Norfolk, Va., she described her mother's insistence that Norfolk public schools adhere to the desegregation requirements of the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education. It led to her interest in a career in the law, she said. The Brown decision and her mother's example showed her "the importance of the rule of law, but also the importance of people who are going to make the law live up to its promise of equality and justice."
She also praised the inspiration of three Minnesota pioneers -- civil rights activist Josie Johnson, retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Rosalie Wahl, and Associate Justice Alan Page, now serving his 20th year on the state's high court. Johnson, who was instrumental in the enactment of the state's Fair Housing Practices Act in 1961, and Page, the first African American on the court, were present in the Governor's Reception Room Monday; Wahl, the first woman on the court, is in frail health and was not in attendance.
"Our courts, as well as all of our public institutions, ought to reflect the wonderful and beautiful and broad diversity that comes from people of different experiences and different backgrounds," Wright said. "Having had before me the strength of judgment, the intellect and the personal experiences, as well as the knowledge of the law and the commitment to fair justice, represented (by these people) ... certainly inspires me, and helps me understand exactly what my responsibility is."
Wright will assume the seat vacated on Aug. 10 by Associate Justice Helen Meyer, who retired. When Wright was asked when she would be sworn in and start work, Chief Justice Lorie Skjeren Gildea piped up, "Soon!" After Wright's remarks, Gildea's eagerness was understandable.