Judge —- soon to be Justice —- Wilhelmina Wright thinks attention should be paid to the appointment of the first black woman on the Minnesota Supreme Court. To the event, that is – not to her personally. It is not about her. It is about a more diverse court that looks more like the people of the state, and that is the fruit of years of hard work by many people, Wright says.
Wright discussed her appointment with Minnesota Lawyer Managing Editor Barbara Jones.
ML: How do you feel?
Wright: I feel elated. I’m really excited about the work that is ahead. Certainly I have mixed emotions. I love this court [the Court of Appeals] and there is such an esprit de corps here. We work hard and we work together, we celebrate and enjoy each other’s company.
ML: What was your interview with Gov. Dayton like?
Wright: It was rigorous. He was incredibly well prepared. He asked many of the questions but also Lee Sheehy (the chair of the Commission on Judicial Selection) was there, and Dana Bailey, the assistant chief of staff to the governor, and Micah Hines, the governor’s general counsel. Each of them participated in the questioning, asked substantive questions, were all clearly prepared and had done a lot of research about me.
ML: The press is making a huge deal, and appropriately so, about this historic moment. How do you feel about that?
Wright: I think the recognition of the moment is important. Institutions like the judiciary have not always reflected the diversity that they should. It’s very important – it can inspire others to aspire to become judges or to seek positions in their profession they otherwise might not have sought. That’s all very important.
ML: You want to make it about this moment, not about you personally.
Wright: Absolutely. The institution of the judiciary, the institution of the Supreme Court, the seats in which I will sit – all of those things are well beyond me. The opportunity that I have is the result of work and advocacy about the court’s ability to understand and reflect the diversity of Minnesota. All of that is well beyond an individual and is the collective work of many throughout history.
ML: Justice Sam Hanson has a joke that the other justices are the best and the worst parts about being on the Supreme Court. What interpersonal skills do you bring to the Supreme Court?
Wright: I’m a respectful listener and a respectful contributor to the discussion of the law. I bring a real commitment to digging deep in the law, understanding the origins of a doctrine and how that doctrine has developed.
I also believe that we have to [recognize] how a particular decision will affect the parties involved and how it can be implemented at the trial court level. [Also, I believe] that the law must be understandable to the individuals who are affected by it. [I will] speak clearly my view of how a case should be decided, listen with an open mind, and advocate as needed for the position that I hold.
ML: What about just as a colleague—what skills do you bring?
Wright: I think collegial decision-making requires mutual respect. It requires friendship, frankly, and a willingness to engage beyond the hard work of being a judge such that you know what’s important to another judge. And it’s not just the judges; it’s the law clerks and the judicial administrative assistants as well. It’s about being a part of the whole and really nurturing the institution as well as the relationships.
ML: What did you take away from the redistricting panel? (Wright headed the recent Special Redistricting Panel that redrew legislative and other districts.)
Wright: What was really enriching and fruitful was the opportunity to serve with a collegial body and gather direct testimony from the people of Minnesota. It really showed their commitment to participating in the process, vindicating the fundamental right to vote. A diverse group wanted us to understand the essential elements of their communities. They wanted us to understand who they are.
ML: What trial skills do you bring to the court?
Wright: I tried several cases at the U.S. Attorney’s office, trial and pre-trial matters. Before that I was engaged in very extensive evidentiary hearings in, mainly, the Kansas City Missouri desegregation case where we were representing the school district in the remedies phase of the case. Then, hundreds of cases as a trial court judge and several trials. It’s extensive, but certainly there are many judges in Minnesota who have more trial experience.
ML: What are the leadership responsibilities of the court right now, outside of the decision-making responsibilities?
Wright: I think it’s important that we are actively involved in civics education. We need to help people understand the role of the courts in a constitutional democracy and the process of decision making. So that kind of outreach involves going to civic organizations, going to schools, and speaking to small and large groups about the role of courts. … I [also] think it’s important that our decisions be written in a manner that they are readily accessible in terms of the rationale, the issue and the decision that’s being rendered and why, so that people can understand the court’s decision-making process.
ML: Can the court maintain its neutrality in the face of the partisan pressure on everyone these days?
Wright: The courts are truly an opportunity to model the kind of careful deliberate discussion and deliberation across differences of opinion and then write an opinion, or several opinions, that address controversial issues in a way that is respectful of differences. A decision [should] explain carefully and clearly the perspective of the court.
Courts are able to model the kind of discussion of controversial viewpoints in a way that we would hope other institutions are able to do. I see oral argument as an opportunity as well. The court should ask hard and probing questions that go to the heart of an issue and also allow attorneys to respond, making sure that their views are presented in a careful, deliberate and responsive manner.
ML: You once said that it was important for judges to bring both realism and ideals to bear in the decision-making process. As an appellate judge, did you see trial judges doing that?
Wright: I absolutely did. The pressures of crowded calendars and complex issues are handled incredibly well by District Court judges throughout Minnesota. The compassion shown . . . is born of a unique vantage point from which [judges] can see our true humanity reflected in the people who come before them. … I have a profound respect for that work and for how hard it is, and for the need to bring both head and heart to the work of a judge.
ML: Can a Supreme Court justice apply legal principle with compassion?
Wright: I think decisions have to be made in a way that is informed by the law and its effect upon real people and real situations. I think understanding those interests as well as the law and the ability to apply the ruling … have to be considered at the Supreme Court or even at the Court of Appeals on an issue of first impression.
ML: Isn’t it the job of the Legislature to balance people’s conflicting interests?
Wright: The court certainly interprets the Legislature’s work but we also establish common law. The work that we’re doing is informed by the advocacy of lawyers to help us understand what the Legislature meant.
JUDGE WILHELMINA WRIGHT
Born: Jan. 13, 1964, Norfolk, VA
Education: Harvard University, J.D., 1989; Yale University, B.A. cum laude, 1986
Professional Experience: Minnesota Court of Appeals, Judge, 2002-Present; Ramsey County District Court Judge, 2000 – 2002; U.S. Department of Justice, assistant U.S. attorney, 1995-2000; Hogan & Hartson, attorney (Washington, D.C. and Houston, Texas), 1991-95; Judge Damon J. Keith, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, 1989-91
Bar Admissions: Virginia, Minnesota, U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C., 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
Appointment: Court of Appeals, 2002, Gov. Jesse Ventura; District Court, 2000 by Ventura
Bar Activities: Minnesota Women Lawyers, Minnesota State Bar Association, Ramsey County Bar Association, Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers, National Association of Women Judges, American Bar Association, American Law Institute, Minnesota Black Women Lawyers Network, National Bar Association
Community Activities: Humphrey School of Public Affairs Advisory Council, Mardag Foundation Board of Directors, Yale University Council
Family: Married, one daughter