Paul Anderson was appointed to the Minnesota Supreme Court by Gov. Arne Carlson in 1994. He stepped down at the end of June, upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70. His spot on the bench has since been filled by attorney David Lillehaug.
During Anderson’s time on the court, he witnessed two statewide recounts, a three-week government shutdown and two court-driven redistricting processes. Shortly before the July 4 holiday, Capitol Report caught up with Anderson to talk about his tenure on the bench. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Capitol Report: When David Lillehaug was announced as your successor, you gave him some advice: “Don’t let anybody take any shot at you because you’ve been involved politically. We need people who have been in the trenches.” Can you elaborate on what you meant by that?
Paul Anderson: We sit in judgment of people. We need to understand the nature of the condition of the human world which we work in. If you’re involved in civic activity, one aspect of which is politics, you understand the nature of how government works, how people function, their fallibilities, their strengths, and you gain an appreciation of what [Thomas] Jefferson meant when he talked about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
If you’re in the trenches, and you’re involved, you develop an understanding and appreciation for the role of government. A lot of people out there like to put a bad label on politics. There’s a lot of reason to do that, given the polarization. But this is a third branch of government. We have an obligation to fulfill the promise articulated by our founders. And heavens, if you’ve been involved in the process, it’s going to help you do that.
CR: Have there been instances during your time on the bench where you were worried that partisan political beliefs stood in the way of the judgment of the court?
Anderson: Not [in] my own experience. Actually the thing that surprised me was how easily I could make that divide. I was a very close adviser to [former Minnesota Gov.] Arne Carlson before I went on the court. I played a key role in his election in 1990. I chaired his kitchen cabinet his first year and a half of office. But it amazed me how easily I could cut the ties and make that divide.
CR: That 1990 campaign must have been interesting. [Editor’s note: Carlson became the GOP nominee shortly before the election that year, following a scandal that toppled the party’s original nominee, Jon Grunseth.]
Anderson: I keep promising people that I will write something about that campaign. I’m now believing that the time has come to fulfill that promise. I have a very good memory for details. People are constantly surprised the way that my memory works. While it’s still functioning, I should write something about that.
CR: You were appointed in 1994. How do you think things have changed during your time on the court?
Anderson: I think the court has evolved. Former Gov. [Tim] Pawlenty was bragging on his website in Iowa that he had transformed a moderate court into a conservative court. My colleagues get very sensitive when I mention that. Sometimes the truth hurts.… I probably agree with former Gov. Pawlenty’s statement, that he has transformed a moderate court into a more conservative court.
CR: What about you personally? How do you think your judicial philosophy has evolved during your time on the court?
Anderson: It’s a mixed bag, in the sense that I’ve always viewed myself as a centrist. My roots are in the tradition of Stassen-Youngdahl-Eisenhower Republicans. All of those terms fit me. So one shouldn’t be surprised that I am a bit of a moderate to progressive on many issues. The core and the root were always there. However, as the court moves more conservative, and I was more and more aware of my own position with respect to individual liberties, I probably became a bit more outspoken. Take a look at the evolution of a John Paul Stevens, in particular, on the U.S. Supreme Court, [and] to a lesser degree Harry Blackmun. They write about them evolving, and I think that’s true. But it’s also a matter of their core belief in common humanity and how the law functions that starts coming out over time. It’s a mixed bag. Yes I’ve evolved, but also it’s a tapping into what’s already there.
CR: The court oversaw two statewide recounts during your years, including the protracted 2008 U.S. Senate election. What did you learn from that process and the court’s role in it?
Anderson: I will tell you flat-out that Minnesota has an honest and credible election system. I can also say that, in my own mind, in 2008 Sen. Franken got a plurality of all the validly cast ballots.
There are two important aspects to voting and elections. One is the right to speak. That’s access – that you are able to get to the polling place and cast your vote. … And then the second aspect is the right to be heard. That’s the right to have your voted counted. That’s what the recount was about, the right to be heard, rather than the right to speak. The amendment last year was more about the right to speak, whether you get to in fact cast your vote at all.
CR: You’re talking about the photo ID amendment?
Anderson: Yes, right. There are people who like to subject elections to manipulation. When one is looking at elections, one has to look at a spectrum of conduct. It ranges on one side to fraud, which is very much misunderstood, to the other side of incompetence.
You are going to see incompetence. It’s just there. You are going to see some negligence. People should know better, but they do things negligently. It happens all the time. … Then you will have manipulation, which is kind of in the middle. There is some manipulation that’s purely legal. Now you start getting to the other side of the spectrum, of conduct that’s actionable.
There’s malfeasance and there’s fraud. A lot of people like to label stuff fraud or malfeasance that really falls over into the category of incompetence and negligence. They will do that to achieve their own end in the middle, which is manipulation of the election process, and we have to watch for that. But in Minnesota, I didn’t see any fraud. I didn’t see any malfeasance. If there were failings, it was more in the line of some negligence here and there and sometimes a bit of incompetence.
CR: What about redistricting? It’s ended up in the courts in each of the last five decades owing to disputes at the Legislature. Do you have any thoughts on why that is, and whether that’s proven an effective way to redraw legislative maps?
Anderson: I am very proud of my role on the court of making sure it was done right. The last time it was done by the Legislature was in the ’60s. Then in the ’70s and ’80s, it was done by the federal court. I was on the outside looking in.
Then you move into 1990. That’s where redistricting shifted from the federal courts to the state courts. … Behind the scenes, I was just so adamant to make it fair. I was quite adamant that we have a five-judge panel instead of a three-judge panel. I’m much into dynamics of decision-making. I understood that a five-judge panel would be a much better form …
If you talk to Sen. [Richard] Cohen and others, he talks to people in other states and they’re envious of our ability to get redistricting done in a fair way. Under the system we have, it should be done in the Legislature. The practicality is it’s not getting done there. We have had two rounds of very, very objective nonpartisan redistricting. As I look back, that’s one of the things I’m proud of during my tenure that I had a role in.
CR: What’s next for you? You mentioned the possibility of writing a book. Anything else in your immediate plans?
Anderson: I just got an email today. I’m going to be the executive branch’s appointee on the group that’s going to be choosing the architects to design the new Senate office building. That’s a short-term thing. I hope to be able to do some teaching. I’ve got a lot of writing that I want to do. What I’m going to be doing right now in the summer months, other than a trip to Norway, is that I have 21 years of legal and judicial work that I need to sort through. I’m behind the curve already on that. I’ve been more busy than I anticipated. That’s a long time. I’ve been a judge for quite a long time.