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Onetime Minnesota Attorney General Walter Mondale recently confirmed that party affiliation was not a factor in selecting department staff. In this photo, Mondale, center, takes the oath of office as attorney general on May 5, 1960. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Dell, right, administers the oath while Mondale’s wife, Joan, watches at left. (AP file photo)
Onetime Minnesota Attorney General Walter Mondale recently confirmed that party affiliation was not a factor in selecting department staff. In this photo, Mondale, center, takes the oath of office as attorney general on May 5, 1960. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Dell, right, administers the oath while Mondale’s wife, Joan, watches at left. (AP file photo)

Minnesota attorneys general: a nonpartisan tradition

The hotly contested election to be Minnesota’s next attorney general election is finally over and Keith Ellison will be our new AG. Minnesota voters appear to have paid attention to Ellison’s pledge to be nonpartisan when hiring staff attorneys. This is a good thing given that so many highly qualified attorneys of both parties, especially young attorneys, want the privilege of serving our state.

Minnesotans want their attorney general to follow a Minnesota tradition of nonpartisanship in the AG’s office. John Oliver delivered a similar message to the nation a couple of weeks ago on his program “Last Week Tonight.” Oliver emphasized the importance of AG contests to our country’s future and stressed the need to keep these offices as nonpartisan as possible.

History conveys a strong nonpartisan message to Minnesota’s next chief legal officer. Past attorneys general have established a tradition of hiring the best and the brightest attorneys to represent us regardless of their political leanings. They have, for the most part, kept partisan politics to a minimum. They understood that a partisan agenda is harmful to our state’s well-being.

Ellison will hire several upper-level attorneys who are loyal to him and who share his outlook on the law. This is expected, but the number is relatively small, about eight to 10. These people may be political and, in some cases, they need to be; but, partisan politics has little to do with the regular day to day work of most staff attorneys. They advise on nonpolitical legal matters, large and small. Their clients expect them to be professional legal advisers, not political minions. My experience as an assistant AG and as a Supreme Court justice confirms the fact that the AG and his staff must fulfill their duty to represent all the people of Minnesota.

As a staff attorney for Attorney General Doug Head, I became acquainted with the many outstanding attorneys who worked for him. Head was a Republican, but many staff attorneys were Democrats. Some were hired by his predecessors, including Walter Mondale, others were hired by Head. For Head, a staff attorney’s political affiliation was secondary to how he or she did the job. Mondale recently confirmed that the same was true for him.

In late 1969, I was slated to start work as an AG staff attorney; but Head had other plans. He asked me to serve as state coordinator of his campaign for the senate. I agreed after being assured that it would be for just a couple of months. When Head switched to the governor’s race, my campaign tenure morphed into eight months. I left the campaign when Head secured the Republican endorsement.

Head lost the election. Warren Spannaus, a Democrat, was the new AG. Given my political activity, the need to look for work elsewhere was obvious. But when Spannaus announced he would personally interview every staff attorney, I scheduled an interview because I wanted to meet him. I had heard he was a good person with high standards and principles.

Our meeting was memorable. We spent the first 35 minutes talking about the 1970 election. We shared experiences and insights. I did so as a Republican and Spannaus as a Democrat. The last five minutes were noteworthy. Spannaus said he was committed to running an office with the highest legal and professional standards.  He acknowledged Head’s similar efforts and wanted to build on that legacy. Then, he stated he had learned that I was a good attorney who was dedicated to the office and service to the state. He offered me a job.

Within the next couple of days, Gov. Harold Levander’s law firm offered me a job that fit well with my long-term goals. I told Spannaus I was grateful for his job offer, but that I would be leaving. I later learned Spannaus retained nearly all of Head’s staff attorneys who wanted to continue to work for the AG’s office. They went on to serve him and the state well. One became his top litigator and chief deputy attorney general.

Spannaus was an excellent public servant who took his office’s mission seriously and treated staff well. He had Minnesota’s best interests at heart. We often reflected upon his governing philosophy and his commitment to run a professional, nonpartisan legal office.  His approach to staffing illustrates how good government works in Minnesota.

In 1990, I was very involved in Arne Carlson’s campaign for governor. During the last week of the campaign, we were before the Supreme Court twice in an effort to get Arne’s name on the ballot. Skip Humphrey, a Democrat, was the AG and had a keen interest in the outcome of the governor’s race; yet he stepped aside from the election contest. He had his chief deputy, Jack Tunheim, now a federal judge, advise Secretary of State Joan Growe. Growe was also a Democrat.

At times Growe and Tunheim played it close to the partisan line; but, they never stepped over that line. They knew that in Minnesota there is a partisan line that should not, indeed must not, be stepped over. When the law favored Carlson, they supported his position, when they had no business taking a position, they stayed neutral. Arne was able to get his name on the ballot, won the election and served with distinction as our 37th governor. Judge Tunheim recently confirmed that when hiring staff attorneys for Humphrey, they did not ask the applicant about political affiliation.

Traditions are important, especially Minnesota political traditions. Tevye said it well in “Fiddler on the Roof” when he stated that traditions are what allow a society and culture to endure and flourish. Nonpartisanship in the office of the attorney general is a tradition worth preserving. Ellison has pledged to honor this tradition. I wish him well as he seeks to do just that.

Paul H. Anderson is a retired Minnesota Supreme Court associate justice.

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