Our Supreme Court: The people behind the bench

by David Hill
One of the region’s favorite daughters returned for a visit this past week, and she brought a few other dignitaries with her.
Over 200 area residents attended a dinner at Lincoln High School Thursday night to honor the Minnesota Supreme Court, especially Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, who grew up in Plummer.
The court visited Thief River Falls last week as part of a program to teach students about the court system, and build the public’s trust and confidence in the judiciary. In doing so, they showed a side to them rarely seen in public.
But why Thief River Falls? Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea, Minnesota’s 22ndchief justice, grew up in Plummer. Gildea has served on Minnesota’s Supreme Court since 2006.
Gildea said these road trips are one of the best parts of their jobs, and thanked numerous people for making it possible, including and especially Ninth District Judge Kurt Marben.
Also in attendance were three of Gildea’s teachers, including her first grade teacher, Inga Linder, who turns 104 in October, fifth grade teacher Mr. Hofstad, and science teacher Don Fox.
Gildea became emotional in talking about the impact her teachers had on her, and eventually, her career.
But Gildea said the court was in Thief River Falls this week as part of a program aimed at connecting the people of the state with the work of the court and educating students about the judicial branch of their government.
One of the first promises in the Minnesota Constitution is the right to access to justice, she said. “We have the right to obtain justice freely, promptly and without delay. That’s what our

Constitution promises.”
Gildea said that promise is carried out in a partnership, a partnership between the state government and local governments.
She said they wanted to come to Thief River Falls to thank and salute the citizens of Pennington County for renewing their commitment to that constitutional promise through the construction of their new Justice Center.
She explained that the court toured the facility, and Gildea said it was quite remarkable. This tour gives the court, she said, an opportunity to thank the citizens. Though it must have been a difficult decision, Gildea said the citizens made the right decision and the court was very grateful to them.
Gildea said Minnesotans should all be proud of the judicial system built in Minnesota, because it is nationally recognized as one of the fairest and most competent in the world.
Justice Barry Anderson has served on the court since 2004 after spending six years on the Minnesota Court of Appeals. He is a graduate of Gustavus Adolphus College, and University of Minnesota Law School. He also hosts a PBS show called “Your Legislators.”
Anderson said an appreciation of lawyers is rarely given. In Alexis de Tocqueville’s book “Democracy in America,” de Tocqueville marvelled at how Americans settle their disputes by hiring lawyers, going into court and settling their disputes before a neutral arbitrator. He thought this was just remarkable.
Anderson said this community is fortunate to have many fine lawyers. He said they not only show up in courtrooms, but show up as athletic coaches, leaders, fundraisers and volunteers in this community. In this atmosphere, he said, “we often don’t realize how fortunate we are.”
Justice David Lillehaug joined the court in 2013 after a career in public service and private practice, including four years as the United States Attorney for the District of Minnesota. He grew up in Sioux Falls, S.D. He is a graduate of Augustana College, and Harvard Law School, and plays the flute.
Lillihaug said it was great to be on Gildea’s home turf. As this trip got closer and closer, he said they could sense the excitement in her. He said the things she brings to this court are the solid values of this region – hard work, integrity, and saying what you mean.
He also spoke of living in South Dakota, pheasant hunting, and his father who was a band director and that he spent time with the local band that day. He also talked about the district court judges and said they are the ones who do the “heavy lifting.” There are 1.3 million cases each year, but 60,000 serious felonies and 40,000 civil cases every year. The heavy lifting is done in the district court, he said.
Justice Natalie Hudson joined the Supreme Court in 2015. Prior to that she spent 13 years as a member of the appeals court. She began her practice as a legal aid association lawyer.
Hudson said she is from Jefferson City, Mo., and both of her parents were educators, so education has always been important to her. She said she knows just how hard teachers work, and how dedicated they are and saw that here in Thief River Falls. Students providing the tour, she said, spoke glowingly of their school and teachers.
Hudson said she also came from a relatively small community and immediately recognized the sense of connectedness that exists here. She said in small communities, people know each other and look out for each other.
Justice Margaret Chutich was appointed to the court in 2016 after spending four years on the Minnesota Court of Appeals. She is a graduate of the University of Minnesota and University of Michigan Law School and, according to Gildea, “quite the tennis player.”
Chutich acknowledged that she did play tennis on the varsity tennis team at the University of Minnesota, and if cut, would probably bleed maroon and gold.
Chutich said she loves to talk to people about their job on the court. She said that while in Thief River Falls, she said children were very eager to learn about the court, and were very smart and energetic. She said these trips to high schools give her faith in the future.
Justice Anne K. McKeig was appointed to the court in 2016. She spent eight years as a district court judge in Hennepin County. She is a graduate of the College of St. Catherine, and received a law degree from Hamline University School of Law.
McKeig gave one of the most humorous presentations of the evening. She explained that she is from Federal Dam, and didn’t care what anyone said, “that is up north.”
She also noted that it’s unusual to have two women on the court, one from the town of Plummer, pop. 292, and Federal Dam, pop. 106, which, she said, seems to say we can do anything. She said northern Minnesotans were well represented on the court.
She also commented on the students and administrators. She said her first impression of Principal Scott Brekke was that he’d had about 5,000 cups of coffee because he was running around like a crazy person. He would be talking to you, she said, and then reach for a student and say, “Where are you going?” But the remarkable part of that was that he would address the students by name and what class they were supposed to be in. She said he knows who his students are, and that is extremely important because there are a lot of kids today, she said, who don’t feel like they are seen.
One of her student ambassadors, she said, was very proud of the school’s choir. This reminded her that as a kid she wanted to be a country music singer. She said she used to go to a lot of singing contests in the north, but when she told her mom she wanted to be a singer, her mom said she should have a Plan B. Then, McKeig began singing Patsy Cline’s hit “Walkin’ After Midnight,” which was actually pretty well done and got an ovation from the crowd.
McKeig then said, “I think my mom was wrong,” which started more laughter. But, she said, “This (her job) has turned out alright for me.”
She also had another student that day who discussed with her some of the troubles she was going through, and that, she said, is what brought her back to how people treat students. “We are in a position of leadership and we are in a position of modeling things. I have worked most of my professional career for the betterment of kids.
“I think it’s really important that we let our youth know they are important. and that we see them, hear them and care about them.” Some kids don’t have that, she said.