Hennepin County Judge Anne McKeig could not hold back her tears Tuesday morning as Gov. Mark Dayton announced her appointment to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
“Today is a historic day, not only for myself and for my family but for all Native people. It underscores the importance of one person leading so that another can follow,” McKeig said during the announcement, attended by court members, her family, mentors and colleagues. A member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, White Earth Reservation, she is the first member of the court with a Native American background.
Her voice breaking with emotion, McKeig joked: “Now I’ve messed up my makeup.”
With McKeig’s appointment, Dayton has continued to shape the state’s highest court and expand its diversity. With her elevation, the Democratic governor will have named four of the court’s seven members. The court will also have a female majority for the first time since 1991.
Earlier this year, Dayton appointed Appeals Court Judge Margaret Chutich as the first openly gay member of the Supreme Court. He has also appointed three African-American women to the high court, two of whom remain on the bench.
As a Native American woman, the court’s latest justice is a sharp contrast to its first. Charles Flandrau, the first Minnesota Supreme Court justice, won acclaim in the 1850s for punishing Sioux Indians.
Her presence on the court will serve a symbolic and practical role.
“It’s incredibly important because we have such a large urban Indian population as well as a population that consists of the members of the 11 tribes in Minnesota,” said Phil Brodeen, president, Minnesota American Indian Bar Association of which McKeig was a member. “It’s practical, not only for the experiences that she’s had, but also the experience of litigants that get up to that point in a Supreme Court case and look up and see a reflection of Minnesota, a Native American on the bench.”
“We are still near the bottom of every social and economic indicator in the state. We’ve traditionally been shut out of the upper echelons of government and decision-making, and we’re severely underrepresented on the state and federal court benches,” he said.
McKeig hails from Federal Dam, Minn., near the Leech Lake Ojibwe reservation in northern Minnesota. It’s a place so small that Dayton admitted Tuesday that he had never heard of it.
With just 101 residents, Federal Dam is even tinier than Chief Justice Lorie Gildea’s hometown of Plummer, Minn., population 292.
“That’s a metropolis, apparently,” Gildea said with a laugh. “I think it is important that we all remember that we serve all the people of the state of Minnesota, no matter where they live, where they come from, our job is to make sure all the people of Minnesota have trust and confidence in us.”
She said the court’s soon-to-be majority-female status is unlikely to change the work.
“The symbolism is important, but I don’t think we should let the symbolism overshadow the substance,” said Gildea, who has served on the Supreme Court for a decade. “The reality is, in the Supreme Court, all votes count the same.”
Dayton echoed that sentiment.
“I look … for excellence, for proven public service, for people who have demonstrated that they have compassion, that they understand that even it is not directly out of their own experience the plight of so many Minnesotans,” Dayton said. “Diversity is part of that but, again, that’s no substitute for experience and excellence.”
Court observers also say that the partisan nature of the appointments — Dayton, a Democrat, and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, appointed all the members of the court — plays little role in the outcome of decisions. The court often acts in concert and even in split decisions the bench only rarely divides along apparent party lines.