Gov. Mark Dayton appointed longtime Democratic state Rep. Paul Thissen to the Minnesota Supreme Court on Tuesday, the latest in a long line of partisans to join the state’s highest court.
Thissen is an attorney and Minneapolis lawmaker who has served eight terms in the House — including one as House Speaker and two as its Minority Leader — and had eyes on the governor’s office until he suspended his campaign in February. He’ll resign from his House seat on Friday and join the court soon after.
He replaces Justice David Stras, who was nominated by Donald Trump to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and recently confirmed. Thissen’s addition means Dayton has picked five of the seven members on the state’s highest court, and while the court has not been openly partisan, it’s a mark that will long outlast the Democratic governor’s tenure ending early next year.
The other two members were appointed by former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
“Judicial appointments are one of, if not the most, important appointments I make,” Dayton said, noting he had emphasized increasing the diversity throughout state courts during his time in office.
Thissen was one of four finalists on the shortlist to replace Stras that also included Lucinda Jesson, Dayton’s former commissioner at the Department of Human Services who he appointed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals in 2016. Minnesota Tax Court Chief Judge Bradford Delapena and District Court Judge Jeffrey Bryan were also in the running.
Dayton and others said Thissen’s blend of legal work and political experience made him the perfect choice for the Supreme Court.
“Under the intense pressures of end of session deal-making, he always stood firm on his own principled convictions and to the high standards of proper Minnesota governance,” Dayton said.
Neither Dayton nor his predecessors have shied away from party allies when filling seats on the state’s highest court. Dayton appointed longtime Democratic attorney David Lillheaug to the court in 2013. Lillehaug helped Dayton during his 2010 recount victory and also worked on former Sen. Al Franken’s 2008 recount and other Democratic elections. Pawlenty named both his campaign attorney Christopher Dietzen and Minnesota Republican Party attorney Barry Anderson to the Supreme Court.
Minnesota Supreme Court history is filled with former lawmakers who joined the court, though none have made the jump immediately, as Thissen will. Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz — a former legislator herself — said his career in politics gives the court needed insight into how the different branches of government operate.
Thissen echoed that sentiment.
“It really has given me this deep respect for the role of the Legislature. Much of the work of the court is interpreting statutes, interpreting the intent of the Legislature,” he said.
Thissen had already decided not to run for a ninth term in his south Minneapolis district. Dayton said he won’t call a special election, instead leaving Thissen’s House seat vacant until after voters weigh in during the general election.
State law requires the governor to call a special election within five days if the seat can be filled while the Legislature is still in session. But Dayton said the secretary of state’s office said it would take at least 38 days to call a special election, pushing the date Thissen’s successor could join the Legislature beyond the end of the current session.
Thissen’s appointment isn’t subject to legislative confirmation, but he will have to face voters for re-election in 2020.