Erick Kaardal likes to channel Don Quixote when he enters a courtroom, which he does frequently in connection with some two dozen lawsuits he may have running at any given time.
Invariably, the defendant is the government.
But the Minneapolis attorney — who has made a two-decade career out of suing municipal, state and federal government entities — takes a more reverential view of Cervantes’ fictional character. The Quixote who Kaardal refers to as his “mascot” is more a champion of his Christian populist ideals than a fool swinging blindly at windmills he perceives to be giants.
Last month, Kaardal argued two headline-grabbing cases before the Minnesota Supreme Court: one defending a neighborhood group that wants to preserve the name of Lake Calhoun and another arguing on behalf of a conservative group that wants access to a trove of voter information to try to sniff out election fraud.
Though Kaardal has dabbled in GOP politics, his cases can transcend partisanship. Last week, he filed a petition challenging Minnesota’s secretary of state and state election laws that could allow the state Republican Party to exclude all candidates other than President Donald Trump from the party’s taxpayer-funded 2020 primary ballot.
The petition was filed on behalf of a little-known candidate and a Minnesota voter, setting up a classic David vs. Goliath dynamic.
“The battle for me is between the people and the government,” Kaardal said in an interview, fashioning himself as a representative of the people in opposition to the policymaking elites at the helm of government.
Kaardal’s litigious journey has so far included two U.S. Supreme Court victories — most recently over the right to wear political garb at polling places. He also has co-founded one of the only legal practices in Minnesota focused solely on suing government entities on a wide range of subjects.
The Lake Calhoun case, which put him at odds with city leaders, also marks a turning point for Kaardal’s career as he fights to defend a seldom-used legal maneuver that permits citizens to sue government officials for overstepping their authority. Taken together, his cases paint a picture of a lawyer who has managed to make a living fighting government attorneys, his chief legal adversaries.
“They sort of admit to me, if I pressure them, that they don’t have anything personal against me,” Kaardal said. “But they are in agreement on one point: The thing they really hate about me and the law firm is how much we enjoy doing it.”
Critics say Kaardal leans too heavily toward favoring conservative or libertarian causes, but he rejects labels that align his work with any one political party.
In a 2015 op-ed, Kaardal and Thomas Dahlberg, the co-author of a book about neopopulism, called for a new wave of activism: “Today, people are unhappy with the federal government and want it scolded, not applauded,” they wrote. “Liberalism and conservatism are seen as inadequate to the task. Populism is seen as a better philosophical tool to chastise the government.”
Sometimes the government has tried to chastise back.
One involved a yearslong but ultimately unsuccessful legal effort on behalf of a group of Mdewakanton Sioux descendants whose ancestors were promised but never received land in southwestern Minnesota for backing white settlers during the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War.
U.S. District Judge Michael Davis dismissed Kaardal’s suit in 2015, calling his claims “completely frivolous and without a factual legal basis.” He didn’t stop there. He also ordered Kaardal to pay “severe sanctions” by reimbursing $281,900 in attorneys fees, though the sanctions were reversed on appeal.
Kaardal also has challenged the state’s standards for placing children in foster care. He has represented businesses with religious objections to birth control coverage for employees. He helped strike down a Wabasha County program that let drivers pay to take a safety course in lieu of paying traffic fines. He is now filing a series of suits over ballot access for third-party candidates.
While critics view Kaardal as a gadfly, some acknowledge he has a role to play.
“The legal system needs people like Erick Kaardal,” said retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson, who estimated that Kaardal appeared before him about a half-dozen times. Still, Anderson adds, Kaardal tends to take an exceptionally cynical view of government.
“Good lawyers are skeptical, but a cynic is something different,” Anderson said. “It’s looking for the bad, and I think he sees sometimes too much of that. With that said, there is some bad there to see and we need people like Erick to point that out to us.”
Gregory Sisk, a University of St. Thomas School of Law professor who has studied litigation against the government, said Kaardal’s practice is one of the only ones he has seen devoted solely to such cases.
“He has found a niche,” Sisk said. “I think he finds real satisfaction in providing a voice where others might not have one.”
Kaardal was born and raised in Redwood Falls, Minn., before studying economics at Harvard College on a U.S. Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship. He studied law at the University of Chicago Law School and then joined the Illinois Army National Guard, U.S. Army Reserves and Minnesota Army National Guard.
“I view what I’m doing as patriotic,” said Kaardal, who is also cubmaster of his youngest child’s Cub Scout pack.
Kaardal has been active in Republican Party politics, previously serving as secretary/treasurer of the state party chapter. But he said he decided to leave behind party politics and focus on his philosophy of the people waging a running legal battle with the government.
“You can participate in the government in many ways: You can of course vote, attend a hearing, run for office,” Kaardal said. “Among those things, you can file a lawsuit and a lawsuit is one way to have a democratic sort of input.”
In the past, Kaardal has referred to himself and like-minded people as “Christian populists” within the Tea Party. Through his earlier studies, Kaardal said, he grew convinced that people “survive their governments and their governments’ mediocrity and malfeasance.” He is their lawyer — something he repeatedly describes as his “contribution” to the state.
But Anderson, the retired justice, warned that an attorney with Kaardal’s legal philosophy must be careful in a climate of increasing mistrust of government.
“He has a bigger responsibility, because in a society that is not as fearful and as paranoid and as anti-government as we have now, he has the luxury of being a real gadfly,” Anderson said. “Now … I see that he has a bigger obligation to advocate for the right cases that don’t just have the potential for creating mayhem and concern and disruption.”
For all his criticism of government, particularly the federal government, Kaardal takes a rosier view of things in Minnesota.
“How your government operates is a factor in your quality of life,” Kaardal said. “Here we have a very high quality of life and that is because our government is quite good. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement, and so that’s what we try to do.”
One improvement, he said, involved helping an Orono man fight a ban on residential wind turbines.
“So not only do I tilt at windmills,” Kaardal said, “I won defending the guy who owns the windmills.”