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There are a few rites of passage Gov. Mark Dayton has yet to undertake since entering office two years ago, and appointing a justice to the Minnesota Supreme Court is one of them.

Dayton weighs would-be Supremes

In the past several years, David Lillehaug has become the go-to guy for the DFL Party and Dayton’s administration in all instances where politics and the law meet. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Wright, Lillehaug seen as favorites; wild card possible

There are a few rites of passage Gov. Mark Dayton has yet to undertake since entering office two years ago, and appointing a justice to the Minnesota Supreme Court is one of them.

That’s about to change as Associate Justice Helen Meyer – currently the only female associate justice on the panel – heads into retirement on Aug. 10. The state’s Commission on Judicial Selection has whittled a long list of candidates down to four, three judges and one well-known DFL attorney currently in private practice.

The only male candidate is David Lillehaug, a former U.S. attorney and DFL U.S. Senate candidate who has become the go-to attorney for the DFL Party and Dayton’s administration over the last several years. Two of the three judges – Wilhelmina Wright and Margaret Chutich – currently sit on the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Hennepin County District Court Judge Tanya Bransford rounds out the list.

The legal community is abound with speculation about the pick. Attorneys say it wouldn’t be unorthodox for Dayton to opt for Lillehaug; many past justices have risen to the bench through their personal connections to or work for governors. But other observers stress the desire of many Democrats to see Meyer replaced by another female justice. Dayton’s administration has also said the governor may interview candidates from outside the pool recommended by the commission.

“Gov. Dayton takes these appointments very seriously,” lobbyist and attorney John Knapp said. “Whoever he appoints will have to click with him personally.”

The candidates

David Lillehaug: Lillehaug stands out as the most politically connected contender. After attending Harvard Law, he served as the issues aide and executive assistant for Minnesota Democrat Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign in 1984. In 1998, he failed to get the DFL endorsement to run for Minnesota Attorney General, and just two years later he failed to earn the party’s backing again, this time for the U.S. Senate. In the wake of that contest, Lillehaug turned his attention to his work, serving as attorney and senior political adviser on the U.S. Senate campaigns of Paul Wellstone and Amy Klobuchar.

But the highlight of his political lawyering was his role in the seven-week trial that determined the winner of the 2008 Coleman-Franken U.S. Senate campaign. Lillehaug and the rest of Franken’s team had their arguments affirmed by a three-judge panel and eventually the state Supreme Court, rulings that significantly raised his profile among politicos locally and nationally.

In the past several years, he has become the go-to guy for the DFL Party and Dayton’s administration in all instances where politics and the law meet. He argued on behalf of DFL interests over the constitutionality of Tim Pawlenty’s 2009-2010 budget unallotments, the 2010 gubernatorial recount between Dayton and GOP candidate Tom Emmer, and the size and scope of the state government shutdown in the summer of 2011. Most recently he reunited with Franken-Coleman recount attorney Mark Elias to argue the DFL position on the state’s once-in-a-decade redistricting process. By all accounts, they won.

But those close to Lillehaug note his resume outside of politics is formidable, and constitutes the bulk of his legal work over the years. In 1994, Lillehaug began what would be a four-year stint as U.S. attorney, where he argued cases on everything from violent crime to white-collar felonies involving complex financial fraud. In 2003 he successfully argued that portions of a newly enacted conceal-and-carry handgun law were unconstitutional. He currently runs a successful construction litigation practice at Fredrikson & Byron.

“I think Lillehaug would be the most entertaining,” said attorney Erick Kaardal, who argued against Lillehaug during the 2011 shutdown. “He always seems to be fairly flamboyant, and in the questioning he would be a lot of fun. He would ask tough questions and he would be very prepared.”

Kaardal is putting his bet on Lillehaug’s getting the appointment because of his “deft handling of the governor’s legal affairs.” “There’s been a tradition of appointing your personal attorney as a Supreme Court justice,” Kaardal noted.

GOP attorney Fritz Knaak, who represented Norm Coleman during the 2008 recount, says Lillehaug’s political ties make him an asset to the court. “He has political background, and those justices tend to be a bit more respectful of the political process. If you look at some of the best justices we’ve had, they’ve been very political,” Knaak said, pointing to Sandy Keith and Kathleen Blatz, both of whom served in the Legislature before being appointed to the court.

Knaak also says GOP election lawyers wouldn’t mind seeing Lillehaug get out of the lawyer business. “Lillehaug would be a no-brainer if this was 20 years ago,” he said. “Those of us down in the trenches won’t weep too much if Lillehaug gets kicked upstairs.”

Wilhelmina Wright: Lillehaug’s biggest competition for the slot, according to most political and legal watchers, is Wilhelmina “Mimi” Wright, a 10-year veteran of the Minnesota Court of Appeals who was already considered once for a spot on the state’s high court.

Wright graduated with honors in literature from Yale University in 1986 and, like Lillehaug, attended Harvard Law, where she received her J.D. in 1989. Wright spent time as an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Minnesota under Lillehaug, eventually going into private practice in Washington, D.C., and Houston, where she primarily represented school districts in their efforts to desegregate.

Independence Party Gov. Jesse Ventura appointed Wright to the Ramsey County District Court bench in 2000, making her the first black woman to serve there. Then 37, Wright was also the second youngest judge in the state court system. Two years later, Ventura appointed her to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Pawlenty subsequently considered her for a Supreme Court spot.

Most recently, Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea appointed Wright the lead judge in charge of the contentious, once-in-a-decade redistricting process this year. “In terms of judicial temperament, Wilhelmina Wright is just first-class,” said Alan Weinblatt, an attorney who has argued on multiple redistricting cases. “That’s been my experience. She is very thorough and does not have preconceived notions.”

Knaak notes that Wright has developed a reputation as one of the best constitutional scholars currently on the bench. There are also some political reasons she could be a top contender.

“She is extremely fair, and she has the benefit of being a black woman on a court [that is] about to lose one of its only women,” he said. “That’s something we should not ostensibly be thinking about, but certainly that’s something that bodes in her favor.”

Margaret Chutich: After receiving a law degree at the University of Michigan in 1984, Margaret Chutich practiced privately for five years at the law firms of Tanick & Heins and Opperman Heins & Paquin, working on labor and employment law, securities fraud and antitrust class actions.

From 1994 to 1996, Chutich prosecuted violent and general crimes as an assistant federal prosecutor in Minnesota, also under Lillehaug. Afterward she went to work in the Minnesota Attorney General’s office under DFLers Mike Hatch and Lori Swanson, a tenure that included positions as deputy attorney general of the law enforcement section and assistant attorney general with the criminal and human services divisions.

She served three years as assistant dean at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs before she was appointed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals by Dayton in 2011. Eric Schwartz, current dean of the Humphrey Institute, notes that both Wright and Lillehaug have ties to the school, but he’s worked most closely with Chutich.

“She’s thoughtful, she’s careful and she’s very intelligent and personable. She clearly has what I call a judicial temperament,” Schwartz said. “I’ve always felt that she had the capacity to step back and look very carefully at any set of circumstances, at the critical issues at play, and to work with them in a very thoughtful and deliberate matter.”

Schwartz said he wouldn’t describe her as a very political person: “In all of my interactions with her, I never felt that Margaret wore her politics on her sleeve in any way shape or form.”

Tanya Bransford: Bransford is local, having attended North St. Paul High School, Gustavus Adolphus College (where she graduated cum laude), and Hamline University School of Law. She began her legal career in 1983 as an associate attorney for the firm of Spicer, Watson & Carp. In 1987, she became a worker’s compensation judge in the Office of Administrative Hearings. She was the first black woman to serve in that capacity in Minnesota.

In 1990, Bransford became a referee for the Juvenile Division of the Hennepin County District Court, where she stayed until 1994. It was then that Gov. Arne Carlson, who had worked with Bransford before, appointed her to a district court judgeship in Hennepin County. She was reelected in 1996, 2001 and 2008, and currently presides over civil and criminal cases. Her current term expires in January 2015.

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