Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Redistricting panel wins bipartisan praise

Briana Bierschbach//June 15, 2011

Redistricting panel wins bipartisan praise

Briana Bierschbach//June 15, 2011

Judge Wilhelmina Wright will lead the redistricting panel. (Submitted photo)

Five judges are likely to draw Minnesota’s new political map

Of the five judges selected by Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea to oversee the state’s redistricting process, one is considered a “rising star” in the judicial world, another has ruled on a case that started a courtroom brawl, and yet another parlayed a tour guide job into a more than 20-year career as a corporate attorney. Together, the judges are widely considered a fair, well-equipped group to handle the contentious process of drawing the state’s political maps.

“It’s very politically important and very politically charged,” GOP attorney Fritz Knaak said of the redistricting process. “But that’s a pretty balanced panel. They come from all different areas politically.”

The panel will be required to intervene only if the GOP-led Legislature and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton fail to agree on a redistricting plan by Feb. 21, but by most accounts, their involvement is already a foregone conclusion. Dayton has vetoed one GOP redistricting map and has said he would not approve any others that did not have bipartisan support. DFLers were highly critical of the plan, which would have forced a number of them to face off against each other in 2012. What’s more, tradition is not on the side of a mutually agreeable map: Redistricting has landed in the courts in each of the last four decades.

Even in the unlikely event that the Legislature and the governor are able to create and agree on a map before February, the panel must still draw lines far in advance of that date, said GOP operative Gregg Peppin, who worked on redistricting for the Republicans in 2002. “The court has to proceed independently of any legislative activity at this point,” he said. “It’s a time-consuming process. They need to get this process going.”

Gildea drew from a talent pool appointed by four governors to select the judges, appointing Wilhelmina Wright as the presiding judge, with judges Ivy Bernhardson, James Florey, Edward Lynch and John Rodenberg rounding out the panel. “Most Democrats think that they’re the best judicial panel that Lorie Gildea could have appointed for us,” said DFL attorney and Rep. Ryan Winkler. “There was a great concern that she might appoint a very GOP-oriented panel…. But given the risk of that, we were happy with this group of judges. Not because it leans one way or the other, but because it’s fair.”

Wilhelmina Wright: When Gov. Jesse Ventura appointed Wilhelmina “Mimi” Wright in 2000, she became the first black woman ever to sit on the Ramsey County District Court bench. Only 37 at the time, she was also Ventura’s youngest judicial appointment and the second youngest judge in the state court system. Ventura called her a “rising star,” and two years later appointed her to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

But Wright had a varied legal career before she ever sat on the bench. She graduated with honors in literature from Yale University in 1986 and received her juris doctorate from Harvard Law School in 1989. Wright spent time as an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Minnesota, where she handled complex economic fraud and violent crime cases in the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals. She also worked in private practice in Washington, D.C., and Houston, where she primarily represented school districts in their efforts to desegregate.

She has been on the short list for a spot on the state Supreme Court, and she will be the lead judge on the redistricting panel. All around, lawyers and politicians consider Wright exceptionally fair-minded. “She is a fair person and a fair judge,” said Joe Friedberg, the lawyer who defended former Sen. Norm Coleman before the state Supreme Court during the U.S. Senate recount.

“Wright is known as a straight shooter and exceptionally bright,” Knaak said. “With her leading this effort, I think you are not going to see a lot of moaning and groaning. She’s a hard worker.”

Ivy Bernhardson: Of all the judges who will oversee the process, Ivy Bernhardson is the newest. She currently serves as a Hennepin County judge in the Family Justice Center, a position to which she was appointed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty in May 2007. Born in Fargo, N.D., Bernhardson moved to Minnesota to attend Gustavus Adolphus College. After graduating, she moved to Southern California to be with her husband, Mark, a naval officer at the time. When the two returned to Minnesota, Bernhardson went to the University of Minnesota to earn her law degree.

During college, Bernhardson spent time working as a tour guide for the Betty Crocker Kitchens at General Mills, a job she eventually transformed into her first legal position working as a law clerk for the company. From there, she moved up to associate counsel, senior associate counsel, vice president and eventually the chief general counsel for General Mills.

After more than 23 years, Bernhardson left the company in 2000 to become an attorney and shareholder with Leonard, Street and Deinard, where she continued to practice mainly business law. Four years later, she joined the Hazelden Foundation as chief legal officer.

In announcing Bernhardson’s appointment to the bench, Pawlenty noted that “our courts are best served by judges who bring a variety of professional experiences with them to the bench.” While Bernhardson hasn’t been on the bench for long, part of the appeal in her appointment was her work with “extremely complex” litigation, a GOP legal source said. Those skills could serve her well in the complicated process of drawing political maps, the source added.

James Florey: One of the most famous cases ruled on by St. Louis County Judge James Florey demonstrated the very real risks of being a public defender. The case — State v. Lehman — started as a felony assault trial in St. Louis County. After the state presented its case, the defendant asked for a mistrial and a new public defender. Florey denied the requests. When the trial reconvened, the defendant began punching his public defender in the face.

After the particularly brutal beating, Florey declined to declare a mistrial and determined that the defendant’s actions were intended to manipulate the court into giving him what he wanted. Florey also refused to replace the beaten public defender, and the defendant ultimately represented himself for the remainder of the trial. The jury convicted him.

Florey graduated from the University of Minnesota in Duluth in 1978 before attending the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, where he received his law degree in 1981. From there, Florey went to work with the Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota, where he stayed for a year before taking a job in the St. Louis County Attorney’s office. After working in the office as a lawyer for about 15 years, Republican Gov. Arne Carlson appointed Florey to the district chief judge slot in January 1999.

Edward Lynch: First District Court Chief Judge Edward Lynch is no stranger to high-profile cases. In 1993, he presided over the trial of Robert Guevara, who was charged with the kidnapping, sexual assault and murder of a 5-year-old. The child’s body was never recovered, and the trial resulted in an acquittal for Guevara.

In 1991, Lynch ruled that public defenders are not immune from malpractice liability and may be sued by former clients. The Minnesota Supreme Court subsequently reversed that verdict, concluding that public defenders must be free to exercise independent, discretionary judgment in representing clients without weighing every decision in terms of potential civil liability.

The cases were new territory for Lynch, who did mostly general practice at a small law firm in South St. Paul before his judgeship. From 1973 until 1989, Lynch represented several banks, did some personal injury work and civil litigation, and worked some minor criminal cases for the firm. Lynch was appointed to the chief judge position in Dakota County in July 1989 by former DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich.

John Rodenberg: In May 2009, a case landed on Brown County Judge John Rodenberg’s desk that was sure to attract a storm of media attention. The case involved a mother, Colleen Hauser, and her son Daniel, who didn’t want to go through chemotherapy to treat his Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a curable form of cancer. The mother and son used a religious freedom defense, saying they were seeking alternative forms of treatment. Rodenberg ruled that Daniel had been “medically neglected” by his parents and ordered that the boy receive treatment or be placed in temporary custody, where he would get that treatment.

Rodenberg wrote that Daniel has only a “rudimentary understanding at best of the risks and benefits of chemotherapy… he does not believe he is ill currently. The fact is that he is very ill currently.” He continued: “The state’s interest in protecting the child overrides the constitutional right to freedom of religious expression and a parent’s right to direct a child’s upbringing.”

Rodenberg also heads the State Judicial Council’s access and service delivery committee, and he has led the charge to use technology to increase efficiency and services, thus saving the cash-strapped courts some money. Under Rodenberg, the committee revamped the jury management system with a statewide database and an automated process.

Rodenberg received his bachelor’s degree at St. Olaf College in Northfield and graduated from the Hamline University School of Law in 1981. Rodenberg started his legal career as a staff attorney for the Social Security Administration, after which he went into private practice with Berens, Rodenberg & O’Connor. In 2000, he was appointed to the court by Ventura. His term expires in 2015.

Top News

See All Top News

Legal calendar

Click here to see upcoming Minnesota events

Expert Testimony

See All Expert Testimony