Minnesota Supreme Court justices accustomed to peppering attorneys with questions found the tables turned on Tuesday as they fielded questions from Richfield High School students.
The question-and-answer session came after the court conducted oral arguments in a long-running case before some 600 Richfield High students in the school’s auditorium. The court holds in-school arguments twice a year as part of an outreach program, and this session marked the 52nd such school visit since the program began in 1995.
The student questions ranged from how to become a lawyer or judge to how justices approach decisions and how they respond to unpopular ones.
Some students read their questions from notes while others were less formal. One addressed Justice Natalie Hudson as “Miss lady in pink, and gorgeous, by the way.” Justices were seated on the auditorium stage in everyday attire after wearing their black robes for the arguments.
Hudson, asked how the justices got to where they are, said being a lawyer requires dedication, good analytical skills, excellent writing skills and the ability to dissect complex information.
“If you have those skills, or you’re willing to perfect those skills, you can do anything you want to do. If you want to be a lawyer, you can be a lawyer,” Hudson said.
Another student asked whether a justice can be a “tight constructionist” or a “loose constructionist.”
“I don’t really approach a case with a philosophy, per se,” Justice Margaret Chutich told the student. “But we all pay total attention if we’re interpreting a statute or the Constitution to what the language is. … You look to the parties to give you a lot of help on what this question involves. I try to make sure that we that we hear them respectfully and all of that, but I don’t go by one of the philosophies that you might have heard, like originalism or that kind of thing.”
Justice G. Barry Anderson said criticism “is part of the price of admission” on the bench, after a student asked about how justices deal with “a decision that the public or media doesn’t like.”
“It will almost certainly happen to you within 30 seconds or so becoming a judge; you’re going to issue an opinion, there’s going to be criticism of it,” Anderson said. “Law professors may write articles about why you’re wrong.”
While criticism doesn’t trouble him, Anderson said, criticism from people who haven’t read the court opinion in question is bothersome.
After a student asked whether the court takes into account the “evolving moral expectations of the younger generation,” Justice Anne McKeig drew a round of laughter with her reply that, “I am the youngest one on the court.”
McKeig, adding that she is a parent of five children, said justices do discuss “the impact that [a decision] will have and the different ways that the community may view our decision.”
Before the Q&A with justices, students heard the name of their diverse school come up during close to 70 minutes or oral arguments in the case of Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota.
The case began in 2015, when seven parents of then current or soon-to-be enrolled students in public schools in St. Paul and Minneapolis sued the state, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Department of Education and the Commissioner of Education.
Parents argued that the Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools were heavily segregated on the basis of race and socioeconomic status and demanded desegregation of the school districts.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals has reviewed the case twice. It ruled in September that racially imbalanced school systems, even if the state contributed to the imbalance, do not violate the Education Clause of the Minnesota Constitution so long as the imbalance was caused by de facto segregation, with no showing that it was the result of discriminatory action by the state. The appellate court rejected an attempt to establish an intentional violation based on the existence of racial imbalance in the schools.
The Supreme Court has reviewed the case and granted the plaintiffs’ petition for review, leading to Tuesday’s arguments.
In their suit, the parents described as segregated any public schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul in which the percentage of students of color is less than 20 percent or more than 60 percent of the student body.
Justice Paul Thissen asked whether that would make Richfield High School close to unconstitutional if the parents’ rule applied to all schools. About 71 percent of Richfield’s enrollment of 4,100 were students of color in 2023, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.
Yes, said attorney Richard Landon, who was arguing for the appellants. But “we’re not asking this court to impose some constitutional mandate for racial quotas,” Landon said, adding that that is a question for the district court.
“In our allegations the hyper segregation in Minneapolis and St. Paul schools is not in dispute, there is not a question of whether those schools are segregated,” Landon said. “The question is whether the Legislature has a duty to remedy it.”
Solicitor General Liz Kramer, arguing for the state, said the Education Clause does not require a particular demographic mix of students in each school.
“The Education Clause says general and uniform and thorough and efficient,” Kramer said regarding public education. “It has no words about racial balance or about demographics. Even if those words that are there are ambiguous, there’s no evidence in the record of the drafters of our constitution that the intended to impose any kind of demographic mix on the schools.”