Gov. Mark Dayton filled two high-profile judgeships Friday, naming Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson and University of Minnesota deputy general counsel Tracy Smith to the state Court of Appeals.

Both Jesson, 57, and Smith, 54, are former prosecutors with decades of experience in public service. They will fill vacancies left on the appeals bench by Judges Natalie Hudson, who was appointed earlier this year to the state Supreme Court, and John Smith, who plans to retire in February.

The appointment of Jesson creates a vacancy at the helm of Minnesota’s largest state agency, one that oversees care and social services for the state’s most vulnerable populations, including more than 1 million people on Minnesota’s public health programs.

During Jesson’s five-year tenure, the Department of Human Services has expanded community-based treatment for people with mental illnesses; intensified efforts to crack down on fraudulent billing in the state-funded health insurance program; and shifted the way Minnesota contracts with health insurers, forcing them to bid competitively for hundreds of millions of dollars in state business. Her agency also has faced a historic challenge to its sex offender treatment program, under pressure to make reforms after a federal judge declared the program unconstitutional for detaining individuals indefinitely without a clear path to release.

Dayton hailed Jesson’s “impeccable qualifications” and “superb job managing Minnesota’s largest state agency” in a written statement. Before her appointment as DHS commissioner, Jesson was a law professor at Hamline University, a deputy Hennepin County attorney and a deputy attorney general.

In an e-mail to agency employees Friday, Jesson said Monday will be her last day as commissioner. Deputy Commissioner Chuck Johnson will serve as acting commissioner until Dayton appoints Jesson’s successor.

“I am grateful to the Governor for this new opportunity to serve the people of Minnesota, but it will be very difficult to leave our work together,” Jesson wrote. “I have had many rewarding positions in my career, but when a reporter recently asked why I have served as commissioner for the last five years, the answer was easy: This is the best job I’ve ever had.”

Like Jesson, Smith is a former prosecutor who spent years working for the Minnesota attorney general’s office. In the early 1990s, Smith litigated a number of high-profile consumer fraud cases and investigated antitrust complaints. One case, against a marketer of air purifiers called Alpine Air Products, went to the state Supreme Court and was widely considered significant because it established that consumers do not need overwhelming evidence of harm to be entitled to refunds when marketers make false claims.

Smith has spent the past 21 years as an attorney for the University of Minnesota, where she has represented the school in lawsuits on a wide range of issues, including employment and antitrust claims. She was appointed deputy general counsel in May 2013.

“I am really excited to serve on the court and to expand my public service,” Smith said. “It is an excellent court doing really important work for the people of Minnesota.”

 

Twitter: @chrisserres