Had Rosalie Wahl done nothing more than break the gender barrier on the Minnesota Supreme Court, her death on Monday at age 88 would be widely noted and mourned.
But Wahl was more than a gender pioneer. She was the change agent who made Minnesota courts fairer to women and minorities. She was the prod to adapt American legal education to her profession’s needs.
And through 17 years of high-visibility service on the state’s high court, she was the human bridge between Minnesota’s highest court and the people it served. Few state Supreme Court justices have made a larger impact for good than she did, or commanded more respect.
Rosalie Erwin knew considerable adversity early in life, and drew lessons from it that developed her keen sense of justice. After her mother died, she was raised by her grandparents. Her grandfather and brother died before her eyes in a train accident in 1932. She and her grandmother endured Depression-era poverty in rural Kansas. Her fiancé died in a training accident during World War II. Her marriage to Roswell Wahl ended in divorce in 1972.
But she became a poet, a Quaker, a mother of five, a stalwart feminist and one of two women in the Class of 1967 at the William Mitchell College of Law. In 1973, she was a founding professor of the college’s clinical education program, now housed in the school’s Rosalie Wahl Legal Practice Center. In that role and as a member of the State Public Defender’s Office, she specialized in appellate criminal defense.
She appealed to Gov. Rudy Perpich as a Supreme Court nominee both because of her gender and her work as a defender of the disadvantaged. She appealed to Minnesota voters in the 1978 election, when three men tried to knock her off the Supreme Court bench in what may have been the roughest high-court election campaign in state history.
Wahl wrote more than 500 opinions during 17 years on the court. But she made her greatest mark as the head of two major court-reform task forces, on gender fairness in 1989 and racial bias in 1993. That work led to wide-ranging changes in statutes, judicial education and court procedures, and mitigated what too often had been a hostile courtroom environment for women and minorities.
In addition, she headed a national commission for the American Bar Association that in 1995 recommended stepped-up practicum experiences within standard American legal education. The changes she set in motion are still playing out in the nation’s law schools.
Wahl’s death comes as interest in her is growing. She is the subject of a recent documentary by Lightshed Productions, “The Girl From Birch Creek.” In addition, a biography written by the Star Tribune’s Lori Sturdevant is set for release next year by Minnesota Historical Society Press.
We hope the public tributes paid her in death will spark new interest in a remarkable life and the cause of justice it advanced.