Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea said Thursday that she will step down from the court in October, giving Gov. Tim Walz a legacy appointment in her replacement.

The announcement was unexpected because Gildea was highly engaged in her work, had not publicly hinted at retirement and, at 61, is years away from the mandatory retirement age of 70. She has served as chief justice for 13 years.

"I believe it is the right time to initiate a transition in leadership within our organization," she wrote in an email to judges and staff. "After three difficult years, we have reached the other side of the pandemic and have made great strides in eliminating the pandemic backlog."

Gildea was appointed to the court in 2006 by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty; he named her chief justice four years later. Her departure gives Walz his second appointment to the state's highest court since taking office in 2019.

Walz, a DFLer who has occasionally been at odds with Gildea, issued a short statement thanking her for her service and calling her a strong defender of the judiciary.

"I have seen firsthand the balance and thoughtfulness she brings to her work each and every day — whether it's improving and modernizing the judicial branch or serving on the Board of Pardons," he wrote.

The chief justice is pivotal in leading the court system across the state's 87 counties. Gildea oversaw widespread expansion of access to the courts through electronic filings, online hearings and more recently, a move to allow more cameras in courtrooms.

In her written retirement announcement to colleagues, Gildea said Minnesota is viewed as among the most innovative and well-managed court systems.

"Serving as chief justice has been the honor of a lifetime, and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to serve alongside such incredibly dedicated judges and staff," she wrote.

During her tenure, Gildea said, the system made "tremendous strides to increase access to justice in Minnesota, modernize the work of our courts, and navigate the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic."

In March, the court ordered expanded camera access in courtrooms. The order, which takes effect Jan. 1, gives trial judges total discretion to decide the issue. Previously, all parties involved in the case had to agree.

Gildea wrote in the eight-page ruling that the change will "promote transparency and confidence in the basic fairness that is an essential component of our system of justice in Minnesota and protect the constitutional rights and safety of all participants in criminal proceedings in the State."

A native of tiny Plummer in northwestern Minnesota, Gildea has said leading the judiciary through the pandemic that began in March 2020 was the most challenging time of her career. Coming out of that period, the courts decided to make online hearings a permanent fixture.

Among the controversies during her tenure was a dispute with Walz over the Board of Pardons. The two sit on the panel with Attorney General Keith Ellison. Walz had supported a court challenge to the requirement that applicants can only be pardoned by unanimous vote.

The Supreme Court eventually upheld the unanimity requirement. But the DFL-controlled Legislature changed the law this year so pardons can be granted with the approval of two of the three board members, provided one of those voting for a pardon is the governor. The board meets this month for the first time under the new law.

In a statement, Ellison praised Gildea for serving honorably. "Under her leadership, Minnesotans knew that the process of justice was in steady and reliable hands," he said. "Personally, I enjoyed working with her on the Pardon Board, and I always benefited from her insights."

In another matter, Gildea publicly apologized in 2021 for strained relations with the board that oversees lawyer discipline. The following year, she reappointed Susan Humiston to another two-year term as director of the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility after Humiston had been accused of bullying and unprofessional conduct. Humiston has led the office since 2016.

In her goodbye list of accomplishments, Gildea also mentioned a new strategic plan adopted by the Minnesota Judicial Council on Thursday. "The future of the Minnesota Judicial Branch is extremely bright, and I am excited to see what all of you, alongside our next Chief Justice, will accomplish in the years ahead," she wrote.

Former Justice David Lillehaug, who served with Gildea for seven of her 13 years leading the court, said her priority was the integrity of the judicial branch and she succeeded.

"History will remember her for increasing access to our courts by bringing them into the digital age," Lillehaug said in a statement. "Personally, I will remember her as a trusted colleague, devoted to the rule of law, with a superb legal mind that challenged us to do better."

In recent years, Gildea suffered personal loss. Her husband, Andy, who was active in Republican politics, died suddenly in November 2021.

Before she was appointed to the bench, Gildea was briefly a prosecutor in Hennepin County. She served as associate general counsel at the University of Minnesota from 1993-2004 and was in private practice at Arent Fox in Washington, D.C., from 1986-1993.

As chief, she succeeded Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, who served only two years and was also appointed by Pawlenty.

Gildea earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota Morris and her law degree from Georgetown University Law Center.

In Minnesota, the seven justices must stand for re-election in nonpartisan contests, although they are rarely defeated. Gildea faced election the first time in 2008. She was re-elected in 2012 and 2018. Her seat was up for election in 2024.

Walz said he will announce the application process for the vacancy in coming weeks. The appointment is unlikely to be his last. Justice G. Barry Anderson, who also was appointed by Pawlenty, will reach mandatory retirement age in October 2024.

Of the remaining justices, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton appointed Margaret Chutich, Natalie Hudson, Anne McKeig and Paul Thissen. Walz appointed Justice Gordon Moore in 2020.

Walz could elevate any of the current justices to succeed Gildea, which would give him an opportunity to appoint another associate justice. McKeig is the first Native American to serve on the court; Thissen is a former speaker of the state House.