For the first time in Minnesota history, half the state's 10 judicial districts are headed by women judges, the latest example of the state beating the national average in gender representation on the bench.

Today, 43 percent of the state's district court judges are female (125 of 291), 53 percent of the judges on the Minnesota Court of Appeals are female (10 of 19), and 57 percent of the justices of the Minnesota Supreme Court are female (four of seven).

All are higher than the national average of 31 percent. In Wisconsin, 20 percent of the judges are women, and the percentage is only slightly higher in Iowa and North and South Dakota, according to the National Association of Women Judges (NAWJ).

"I think it's fabulous," said Judge Kathryn Messerich, who will take over the First District overseeing seven counties including Dakota and Carver this week. "Our judiciary should mirror the people we serve. Having leaders who are women is a big change."

Across the country, 5,596 women are among the 18,006 state-level judges, according to the NAWJ.

Messerich was a nurse before jumping into the legal profession 30 years ago. When she became a lawyer, she was surprised that the number of women in practice didn't reflect what she saw at law school.

"Private practice litigation wasn't a hospitable environment for female lawyers," she said. "It's definitely been a slow, slow, steady change."

Along with Messerich, the newest chief judges in Minnesota are Jodi Williamson in the Third District in southeastern Minnesota and Michelle Dietrich in the Fifth District in southwestern Minnesota. Chief judges are elected by their fellow judges and serve a two-year term. The other two chief judges are Ivy Bernhardson in the Fourth District serving Hennepin County and Sally Tarnowski in the Sixth District in northeastern Minnesota.

Since 2011, the racial diversity of Minnesota's judges has also increased by 70 percent, but at 10.2 percent still lags behind the rate of women.

Growing diversity

Minnesota's 87 district courts are organized into 10 judicial districts. Ramsey and Hennepin County have their own judicial districts, but the largest district — the Ninth — contains 17 northwestern Minnesota counties. Last year, nearly 1.3 million cases were filed in Minnesota's district courts.

Chief judges exercise administrative authority over the courts in their districts, including assigning judges to locations. Each chief judge also serves on the Minnesota Judicial Council, the administrative policymaking authority for the state's judicial branch.

Chief Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Lorie Gildea joined the high court in 2006 and took the helm four years later. She wasn't without role models, including Rosalie Wahl, who in 1977 became the first woman to serve on the state Supreme Court. She served there for 17 years, writing more than 500 legal opinions. When Wahl died in 2013, Gildea called her a "trailblazer for the state."

Judge Harriet Lansing, who in 1978 became the first female judge appointed in Ramsey County, was close to Wahl and served with her on a judicial gender fairness task force in the early 1980s. She said her heart leaps at the number of female chief justices and she wishes Wahl were here to celebrate it.

"The chief judges are hardworking and talented women, and they are selected by their peers because they trust and respect them and know what they can do on a daily basis," she said.

Lansing, who is now a senior appeals court judge, spent more than a decade teaching at New York University Law School, so she saw how other states were doing on gender diversity. She believes Minnesota is out front on the issue.

"These have been some difficult times for women, so it's reassuring people of good will and wisdom understand women can do these jobs," she said.

Lansing used to joke that back in the day the members of the National Association of Women Judges could almost meet in a telephone booth. Wahl serving as such an excellent Supreme Court justice paved the way for other women, she said.

As an attorney, Ivy Bernhardson had a leadership role at General Mills and chaired a nonprofit board before becoming a judge 10 years ago. More than half the 62 judges in her county are women.

"You have to take opportunities and have enough self-confidence to move forward, no matter what somebody else puts in your path," she said.

She believes people treat female judges the same as their male colleagues.

"Strong judicial leadership is important," Bernhardson said. "Decisions shouldn't be gender or race based."

Whether a chief judge oversees an urban or rural district, the management and judicial issues are the same, Messerich said. Women who come into the legal profession have often tried another craft first and probably have a thicker skin to deal with some thorny issues, she said.

When she first interviewed for lawyer jobs, she was asked if she was married or was going to have children. As a lawyer, Messerich said she was often questioned by clients who didn't want a female lawyer.

She recalled hearing a story when she became a judge 13 years ago about a female public defender who had to show her law license when appearing in court. There are still some counties that have only recently had their first woman judge. Today in most areas of the job, gender doesn't matter — particularly one:

"One thing I noticed when I became a judge is that suddenly my jokes became funnier and you are treated a little different," she said with a laugh.

David Chanen • 612-673-4465