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"Be sure to talk about Rosalie," Paul Anderson coached me as we prepared for a joint speaking gig last Wednesday at St. Paul's American Association of University Women.

Of course, I assured the retired Minnesota Supreme Court associate justice. How could I fail to mention Rosalie Wahl, Minnesota's first female associate justice — who retired from that court soon after Anderson arrived — when female judicial pioneers lately have been much in the news?

The death of the great Sandra Day O'Connor on Dec. 1 reminded Americans how recently gender integration came to the U.S. Supreme Court. Until just 40 years ago, this nation foolishly kept women out of its high court's candidate pool.

Days after O'Connor's death, a Minnesota pioneer on the federal bench surprised court-watchers by announcing her plan to retire next year, soon after her 60th birthday. Wilhelmina Wright has been a judge since 2000, serving at all three levels of the state court system before becoming the first African American woman to serve as a federal judge in Minnesota. She broke that barrier just seven years ago.

Rosalie Wahl, who died in 2013, would have been 99 this year. As a young reporter, I was struck by the euphoria among Minnesota feminists when Gov. Rudy Perpich named her to the state's high court in 1977.

It was what Wahl might have described as a "yeasty time." There was a swelling sense that a better day was dawning, not just for women and people of color, but for the courts — and, by extension, for the country.

Proponents of more demographic diversity in the judicial branch were convinced that as judges increasingly resembled the whole population, public confidence in the courts would grow. The result would be more legitimacy for this nation's system of government, whose sustainability depends as much on broad public acceptance of judicial authority as it does on free and fair elections.

Would that it had been true. Or rather, would that the boost that diversity unquestionably did bring the nation's judiciary had been a stronger bulwark against all that has pushed public confidence in the other direction.

"Overall confidence in the Supreme Court hit a record low in 2022," read a headline earlier this year about a survey of public opinion that has been conducted annually since 1973. Just 18% of respondents said they had "a great deal" of confidence in the court; 36% said they had "hardly any."

The National Center for State Courts didn't have good news in its 2022 survey, either. While it found 60% of respondents saying they had a great deal or some confidence in state courts, that's down from 67% a decade earlier, when the survey started. And in 2022, for the first time, a plurality of respondents disapproved of state courts' performances on "providing equal justice for all."

Why have the courts been on a confidence skid, Justice Anderson? We discussed myriad reasons. Unpopular decisions — abortion, guns, voting rights and more — have made judges appear partisan and out of touch. Former President Donald Trump's claim that the judicial system has been deployed as a political weapon against him taints it in his devotees' eyes.

Ethical lapses by justices of the U.S. Supreme Court have called into question the courts' commitment to public service over personal enrichment. Judicial election battles in many states have diminished judges to the status of mere politicians — though not in Minnesota, yet!

What to do about all that? It's a situation that warrants corrective action. Anderson said he favors staggered terms and 18-year term limits for justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. I spoke of the need for more voter focus on what elections mean for the courts.

Then Anderson beat me to it and told a story about Rosalie Wahl.

It was Nov. 1, 1990, and one of the craziest gubernatorial races in state history was in its final week. The winner of the Republican primary had left the race amid a sex scandal. It was up to the Minnesota Supreme Court to decide whether the second-place primary finisher, Arne Carlson, would have his name on the Nov. 6 ballot. DFL Secretary of State Joan Growe had ordered as much; DFLer Perpich, seeking an unprecedented fourth term, opposed that move.

Anderson was then an attorney advising the Carlson campaign. He nervously watched the state's seven-member high court that day, knowing that two justices had been appointed by a Republican governor, five by DFLers — four of those five by Perpich.

When the justices' decision was announced, it was indeed 5-2 — five justices sided with Carlson, two with Perpich. The case turned on a state constitutional change in the early 1970s that requires governors and lieutenant governors to run as a team, not separately.

Was Anderson surprised by the three DFL-appointed justices who took Carlson's side? Maybe by Esther Tomljanovich and A.M. "Sandy" Keith, he said, noting that both had been personally close to Perpich. But not by Wahl.

"For some reason, I just knew that Rosalie would follow the law," Anderson said. "That is the type of justice we have had in Minnesota, and why we are so fortunate here."

Can Americans improve their judiciary with measures like term limits and staggered terms? I'd say yes. But I would also say that there is no substitute for populating positions of power with people of high character. People like Rosalie Wahl.

Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer and the author of the 2013 book, "Her Honor: Rosalie Wahl and the Minnesota Women's Movement," published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.