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Kathleen Blatz
Before she became a Supreme Court justice, Kathleen Blatz famously became the youngest woman to be elected to the Minnesota House of Representative at age 24. (Minnesota Historical Society via Minnesota Law Library)

Bar Buzz: Law Library exhibit goes virtual

Calvin L. Brown worked as a printer’s devil, railroad brakeman and tinsmith before he became a Minnesota Supreme Court justice.

Justice Aaron Goodrich wrote a 19th century biography about “the so-called Christopher Columbus,” arguing that the controversial explorer actually was a pirate named “Criego.”

In more modern times, Justice Sandra Gardebring had so many high-level government jobs—including state Human Services commissioner—that she was called “an administrative superwoman.”

It would be fun to pretend we know all of this because of our well-honed Trivial Pursuit skills. Truth is, those factoids are all part of the Minnesota Law Library’s first-ever virtual exhibit.

The “Before They Were Justices” exhibit has been online for about a week, said Erica Nutzman, the Law Library’s head of technical services.

Inspiration seems to have been bred from mild frustration. With the pandemic, not so many folks are making in-person appearances at the law library. And yet, staff has a habit of putting entertaining and informative museum-style exhibit on display.

“We’ve done a lot of displays,” Nutzman said. “But especially now that nobody can come and look at them we thought, ‘Well, we did all this work—we want to make sure people can actually see what we did.”

“Before They Were Justices” is the first Law Library exhibit ever to have a digital facsimile online. But it likely won’t be the last. Seems staff has a lot of pent-up ideas. Last year, Nutzman said, the pandemic prevented them from putting up a bunch of cool exhibits that they had planned for 2020.

This first web iteration is part of a project that law librarians have been working on for a couple of years, dealing with state Supreme Court biographies. The online exhibit is a subset of that larger collection, and is dedicated to justices who had interesting jobs outside of the law before (and sometimes after) they donned the robe.

“If all they ever did was go to law school or just be a lawyer or work in a law office or something, then we just kind of didn’t include them,” Nutzman said.

Take former Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz. Before she famously became the youngest woman to be elected to the Minnesota House of Representative at age 24, she worked as a psychiatric school social worker.

Or consider the career of Loren W. Collins. After studying law in Hastings, he joined the 7th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment during the Civil War, then became mayor of St. Cloud for four terms. About the only thing he ever failed at was a campaign for Minnesota governor.

Then there is former Chief Justice Robert D. Sheran, a one-time FBI special agent noted for having “guarded the secrets of the Manhattan Project” (which sounds even more exciting than his national debate championship).

Besides all the bite-size biographies, the exhibit includes some nice photo montages. Take a look for yourself here.

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About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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