Rosalie Wahl was a trailblazer and a legal legend. But when you ask those close to her to describe the late Minnesota Supreme Court justice, those are the last words they use.
Kind, thoughtful, compassionate, strong. A renaissance woman, said U.S. District Court Judge Susan Richard Nelson.
Open, humble, down-to-earth, said her daughter and Hennepin County prosecutor Sara Wahl.
Guide, mentor, friend, said retired Court of Appeals Judge Doris Huspeni.
Wahl was the first female Supreme Court Justice in Minnesota, an accomplishment that placed her firmly in the history books. But throughout her career, she was more well-known for her strong beliefs that everyone be represented fairly in the courts. Wahl led both gender bias and racial bias task forces in the courts, as well as the court’s mental health commission.
“She was the person not only representing women on the court but the little people,” her daughter Sara Wahl said. “She was so non-judgmental and so down-to-earth and humble.”
Rosalie Wahl grew up in difficult circumstances during the poverty of the Great Depression. Her mother died when she was a young child, and Wahl and her little brother moved to rural Kansas to live with her grandparents. Just a few years later, her grandfather and brother were killed in a horrific accident with a train. Later, her fiancé died in training during World War II. Despite, or perhaps because of, the tragedy she experienced so young, her belief in social justice seemed to be firmly rooted at a young age. When she was in college in the early 1940s, she was instrumental in the development of the first interracial coop living arrangement at the University of Kansas.
“She’s always been just a mighty fighter for social justice,” Sara Wahl said.
Huspeni met Rosalie Wahl when the two women were still in law school. The women were in separate law school classes at William Mitchell, but they each were one of just a few women in the entire school. The two were mothers and wives and both went on to work for the first public defender in Ramsey County. From the beginning, Huspeni looked up to Wahl.
When Huspeni graduated from law school, Wahl gave her a book of drawings portraying “people who come from that stratum of society that is invisible to so many of us and whose needs are so great and are underrepresented in the halls of justice,” Huspeni said. The book was inscribed, “To Doris, I greet you at the crest and give you this so we don’t forget what we’re about. With love, Rosalie.”
“I’d like to think that I never forgot that,” Huspeni said. “But I know that Rosalie never did. You read her opinions, you can see not only her great legal talents and her legal mind but you see this heart and this dedication to those who most need it.”
Wahl’s compassion did not signal a lack of strength. Just one year after her appointment to the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1977, she faced an election challenge by three men.
“She rose to the occasion, she welcomed the challenge and she beat them all,” said Nelson.
Wahl died in July 2013. Throughout her career, as her profile and her prominence grew, she never caught “black robe disease,” said Sara Wahl. It didn’t change her or her personality, and when she finally retired, she left a legacy for all the women, and men, who followed her.