Stras adds a lot to the court in terms of diversifying its demographics. At 35, he’s the youngest member of the court by 13 years. He’s the only member of the high court bench to join the court after being a full-time academic (he was a law professor at the U of M). And Stras is the only Jewish member of the high court. (Stras is a member of Bet Shalom Congregation.)
But is Stras the first Jewish member of the high court?
The answer to that simple question turns out to be pretty complicated. A variety of sources told me that they believed that Stras was the second Jewish high court justice. When I pressed, however, they couldn’t come up with a name.
I turned to Justice Paul Anderson, who has at his fingertips an arsenal of historical information about high court history. He told me that he has heard that Lee Loevinger, who briefly served on the court from 1960-61 may have been Jewish. However, Anderson told me he had been unable to confirm that belief.
I did my own Internet search and soon ran into the same brick wall that Anderson had. Loevinger’s obituarysaid nothing whatsoever about services and provided no hint as to religion. On the other hand, I did discover that Loevinger was a very interesting guy. He left the high court after just a year because President John F. Kennedy tapped him to head the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice. In that post, he won a landmark antitrust case that he personally argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. He later became an FCC commissioner.
In his role with the FCC, Loevinger told the Minneapolis Tribune in 1967: “It seems to me that television is the literature of the illiterate; the culture of the lowbrow; the wealth of the poor; the privilege of the underprivileged; the exclusive club of the excluded masses.” However, the piece goes on to report that Loevinger privately called television “the idiot box,” his daughter was quoted as saying in his obit.
None of this helped me in my quest to discover whether Loevinger’s religion. I did several Web source reporting that Loevinger referred to antitrust as his “secular religion.”
I tried calling Loevinger’s daughter, a semi-retired doctor in Wisconsin, to get some more biographical info, but she hasn’t returned the call. The big Washington, D.C., law firmwhere Loevinger spent the latter part of career was more helpful. After a lot of checking with his former coworkers, a very nice staffer got back to me and told me that one of his ex-partners recalled that Loevinger’s father was Jewish, but Loevinger himself attended Unitarian services.
The local Cardozo Society — an affinity group for Jewish lawyers, judges and law students — was also very helpful. It also could not come up with a definitive answer, but, after a little research, heard from its sources information substantially the same as I got from the D.C. firm.
Thus, while Loevinger’s father, a Minnesota trial court judge, may have been Jewish, it appears that his son was not a practicing Jew. (No one was sure what the religion of Loevinger’s mother was.)
Thus, with all the qualifiers in place, I think we can safely that David Stras is believed to be the first practicing Jew to hold a seat on the Minnesota Supreme Court.
I can say definitively that Stras is not the first justice from Kansas. Justice Anderson was kind enough to point out to me that Justice Rosalie Wahl, the first woman appointed to the high court, also hailed from Kansas.
UPDATE: I just heard from a nephew of Mr. Loevinger, who confirmed the basic facts of this post. Mr. Loevinger’s sister, Jane Loevinger, a noted psychologist, wrote an autobiographical article entitled “Confessions of an Iconoclast: At home on the Fringe,” which provides more information about the family life of Mr. Loevinger. The article was published in the Journal of Personality Assessment in 2002.