Ken Tilsen’s nickname was “Mandamus,” and that about says it all.
When he died Sept. 1, 2013, he was 85 years old and had been a member of the Minnesota State Bar Association for 63 years.
He and Solly Robins founded the law firm now known as Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, but he left the firm to do social justice cases he thought might not help the law firm.
Those cases are a portrait of a certain part of Minnesota’s history and a certain kind of lawyer. A lawyer whose father was the first builder in Minnesota to refuse to build on land with racial covenants, who met his wife at a protest over segregation at the Prom Ballroom in 1947, and who contested a subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee on the grounds of jurisdiction.
The 1973 protests at Wounded Knee, S.D., turned into a 71-day occupation by the American Indian Movement. Tilsen went to Wounded Knee, where the authorities questioned his right to be there, but a woman on the reservation asked him not to leave because the police would kill them, recounted his daughter, Ramsey County District Court Judge Judith Tilsen.
Tilsen served as chief legal coordinator for the protestors in thousands of felony charges arising out of that and other Native American rights demonstrations around the country. He represented AIM leaders Dennis Banks and Russell Means, who were charged with 10 federal offenses. Their nine-month trial ended in a dismissal of the charges due to prosecutorial misconduct, and the 8th Circuit dismissed the government’s appeal on Double Jeopardy grounds.
Minneapolis lawyer Jordan Kushner said that Tilsen expected the Wounded Knee lawyers to be polite and civil. “Wounded Knee showed that a lawyer could be a gentleman and still kick ass,” Kushner said. It was at Wounded Knee that Tilsen earned his nickname. “He wasn’t afraid of judges. He got mad if they wouldn’t make a decision,” said St. Paul attorney Bill Tilton.
The farmers in Minnesota who protested an 800,000 volt electrical line across their property sought out the Wounded Knee lawyer, said Hennepin County District Court Judge Mark Wernick, who also represented the farmers. Those protests started in 1974, and by 1978, 200 state troopers arrived. The power line was built anyway.
Tilsen represented clients connected to the Hormel strike in Austin and the Minneapolis Honeywell protests. Wernick, Tilsen and Referee Linda Gallant made law in State v. Brechon, a trespass case against Honeywell protestors where the Supreme Court said that defendants may not be precluded from explaining their actions to the jury. He represented members of the Minnesota Eight, including Tilton, when they were arrested for a draft board raid.
He was on the scene in St. Paul at the Republican National Convention, acting as a consultant to the defense attorneys for the hundreds of arrested protesters. Tilsen was in the courtroom with Kushner. “I’ve represented hundreds of protestors but I felt I was learning something from Ken. He was such a gentleman,” Kushner said.
Tilsen’s practice wasn’t all about politics, said Tilton. “He just thought people should be represented. Those farmers weren’t leftists. He was the perfect lawyer. He accepted people where they were at and was willing to steer them if necessary. He took on everything.”
And, said Judge Tilsen, “He’d be thrilled to get an award next to Justice Rosalie Wahl.”