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Dayton diversifying Minnesota's judiciary: Women, people of color still face barriers in legal profession

DULUTH — When Michelle Anderson was sworn in last month, she made history as the first woman to serve as a district court judge on the Iron Range.

But her selection hardly came as a surprise to the local legal community. During his nearly seven years in office, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has transformed the makeup of the state's judiciary — from the Supreme Court down to the district courts in the state's most rural counties.

In fact, the Democratic governor has appointed half of all the women who have served as judges in the history of Northeastern Minnesota's 6th Judicial District.

"We're seeing the bench and the appointments by Gov. Dayton reflect the gender balance and the racial balance of our community and becoming more reflective of our general population, as well as the (legal) profession, as a whole" said Dan Lew, the region's chief public defender, who serves on the governor's Commission on Judicial Selection.

Dayton has appointed 73 women and 68 men to the judiciary since taking office in 2011, according to statistics provided to the News Tribune by the governor's office. With a bench that was previously dominated by men, that has meant a 35 percent increase in women serving across the state — and a 74 percent increase outside the Twin Cities metro area.

The bench also has seen a 93 percent increase in racial diversity, with 28 of 151 new judges self-identifying as a race or ethnicity other than white.

"In making these appointments, Gov. Dayton has been mindful of improving diversity on the bench — helping ensure that the state's judges better reflect the cultural, racial and gender diversity of the Minnesotans they serve," said Sam Fettig, the governor's press secretary. "Those intentional efforts have greatly improved diversity in Minnesota's Judicial Branch."

Progress is slow

Women and people of color have increasingly joined the legal profession over the past several decades, but those in the profession say it has been harder for them to gain or keep employment as attorneys, earn promotions and get appointed or elected to the bench.

Fred Friedman, who retired as Northeastern Minnesota's chief public defender in 2014, said there were about six or eight women among the 200 graduates in his University of Minnesota Law School class of 1972.

By 2016, the American Bar Association reported that women had for the first time surpassed men in law school attendance.

"I remember hiring women back in the '70s, and that was considered highly unusual at the time," Friedman said. "There were comments made that would never be made or tolerated today. I think for the generation ahead of me, it was much harder to accept."

However, Minnesota State Bar Association statistics show that women still account for only about 40 percent of registered attorneys across the state, and they tend to go on inactive status at higher rates.

People of color are also significantly underrepresented in the legal profession as compared to state population figures, according to a 2016 study by the state bar.

Lew, when appointed to succeed Friedman, became the first Asian-American to serve as a chief public defender in Minnesota and only the fourth nationwide. He recalled that when he first came to Duluth in 1996, he was the only Asian-American lawyer in town.

Lew has seen some progress — he's a member of a lunch group that is now up to five or six — but he said change has been slow.

"It continues to be a challenge to promote lawyers of color to join the profession," he said. "It happens, I think, for many reasons, which may include that for many lawyers of color, they're the first in their family to graduate law school and have a professional degree."

Diversity a focus

Judicial applicants are screened and interviewed by district representatives of the Minnesota Commission on Judicial Selection, which includes both attorney and non-attorney members. That commision then recommends finalists, typically three, to be interviewed by the governor and his staff.

Statistics from the governor's office show that men and people identifying as white have applied at higher rates than the general population and the bar. But the commission, and ultimately the governor, have selected higher proportions of women and people of color.

Nevada Littlewolf, a Virginia city councilor and a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, is a long-serving member of the commission for the 6th District. She said she was told up-front that the governor had a goal of diversifying the bench.

"This was very appealing to me," Littlewolf said. "Clearly, there was a lack of women and a lack of people of color who could see different aspects of the community."

Littlewolf said she can relate to the mission of bringing different viewpoints into community leadership positions. When first elected to the City Council, Littlewolf said, she was the youngest member, the only one with school-age children and the only Native American representative.

"Judges are interacting with the full gamut of our community, and we know our community demographics are shifting quickly," she said. "It makes sense for us to have people on the bench who come from the communities they'll be making decisions about."

Littlewolf noted that Anderson's appointment is just the first step in what will be a major transition for the Iron Range's long-serving judiciary. For an area that hadn't seen a new judge since 2004, there will be more turnover at the Virginia and Hibbing courthouses in the coming years.

Anderson's appointment came as a result of Judge James Florey's appointment to the Court of Appeals. Looking ahead, the Range will see the mandatory retirement of Virginia Judge Terrence Aronson in November.

Making history

Anderson said she was proud to be part of the changing face of the judiciary, stressing the importance of diversity.

"It instills more confidence in the system and in the judiciary when you have a bench that reflects the community that you live in," she said.

Anderson's distinction does carry a footnote that she and others are quick to note: Another woman, Gail Murray, served as a county judge in Hibbing from 1974-81. The county system was established to handle misdemeanors and small-claims cases after municipal courts were disbanded; it was later merged into the State District Court system.

Gov. Rudy Perpich in 1991 made Minnesota the first state to have a female majority on its highest court. But at that time, women held just 12 percent of all judgeships across the state.

Women now represent 43 percent of the state's judiciary, and five of 10 judicial districts are led by female chief judges, according to data from the Minnesota Judicial Branch. The state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals have both taken a slight female majority under Dayton's appointments.

In the 6th District, Dayton also has appointed Leslie Beiers to the bench in Carlton County and Theresa Neo and Jill Eichenwald in Duluth. His four appointments equal the total number of women selected under all previous administrations — all of which came in Duluth.

Gov. Arne Carlson made Jeanne Sederberg the first in 1992, followed by the appointments of Carol Person and Heather Sweetland. Gov. Tim Pawlenty later appointed Sally Tarnowski, who currently serves as the district's chief judge.

Friedman, also a member of the Commission on Judicial Selection, said women first made a dent in urban areas — the Twin Cities, Duluth, Rochester — but it's taken longer to see progress in more rural areas, including the Iron Range.

"It's long since due," he said.