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Attorneys of the Year: Esther Tomljanovich

recognition-for-outstanding-serviceIn 1991, the Minnesota Supreme Court became the first state high court with a majority of women justices. They were Justices Rosalie Wahl, Sandra Gardebring, M. Jeanne Coyne and Esther Tomljanovich.

Tomljanovich does not shy away from being called the first woman or one of the first women on the court or any place else. “It was wonderful to be the first, it’s a wonderful thing to look back on,” she said. “There’s no reason to appoint women [to the bench] if we do not bring something different to the job,” she said.

“It’s been a wonderful treat to see women move forward in the profession, if not exactly take their place.”

Tomljanovich was 19 years old when she came down from the Range to attend the St. Paul College of Law. She said she didn’t have a sound education but was loved by her family and community, which gave her the security to leave. “I didn’t have much to lose, nobody expected me to succeed,” she recalls.

She graduated in 1955 as the only woman in her class then became the Revisor of Statutes, then a District Court judge, then was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1990. She worked hard for the rights of all women and particularly women prisoners. She worked on a variety of Supreme Court committees, including one on gender fairness. Continuing to serve, she now sits on the board of directors of Medica.

Tomljanovich approached events with common sense and a commitment to picking only the important battles. Sometimes she blamed herself when discriminated against. Remembering being told to wait in the cloakroom of the St. Paul Athletic Club (for her husband to escort her), she now says she was so embarrassed she didn’t tell anyone about it for 15 years. “I thought I had committed a terrible faux pas.”

Looking back, though, she says clubs like that were important and discrimination there, as everywhere, hurtful. Advancing the careers of women lawyers and the fair administration of the court system was Tomljanovich’s outstanding service to the profession.

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