By Ricardo Lopez

Gov. Mark Dayton has selected Fourth Judicial District Judge Anne McKeig as the next Minnesota Supreme Court justice, giving the state's highest court its first American Indian jurist and its first female majority since 1991.

McKeig, 49, a descendant of White Earth Nation, has specialized in child protection and Indian welfare issues. GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty first appointed her to the bench in 2008. She will replace retiring Justice Christopher Dietzen, also a Pawlenty appointee.

Dayton has now made a majority of appointments on the seven-member court, likely ensuring his legacy on the bench long after he leaves office. He has appointed five justices; former Justice Wilhelmina Wright joined the federal bench earlier this year.

McKeig delivered an emotional speech Tuesday to reporters, members of her family and Minnesota dignitaries, including the state Supreme Court.

"Today is a historic day, not only for myself and for my family, but for all native people," McKeig said.

She thanked trailblazing Judge Robert A. Blaeser for paving the way for other Indians pursuing legal careers.

"He was a White Earth member," said McKeig, recalling the impression his 1995 swearing-in left on her. "And, I, a proud descendant of the White Earth Nation, knew that if he could do it, than maybe I could. ... It is people like him and his wife who have led the way that have allowed for others like me to dare to dream."

In his two terms, Dayton has made diversifying the state's courts a priority. He praised McKeig's legal experience, and he also emphasized her biography, reading a passage from her application.

"I grew up in rural Minnesota in challenging circumstances surrounded by poverty," McKeig wrote. "The lessons I learned as a young woman from Federal Dam, Minn., planted in me a strong desire to make a difference for my community. My passion for public service comes from seeing the enormous need matched against the limited resources on the reservation."

Some expect a liberal shift

Dayton said her appointment will inspire others. "I hope that she serves as an example to young people all over the state about what you can accomplish growing up in Federal Dam, Minnesota," he said, joking that he had to consult a map to locate the town with a population of 110.

Ted Sampsell-Jones, a professor at Mitchell Hamline Law School, said Dayton's selection will cause an immediate shift on the court.

"Justice Dietzen has been one of the court's more conservative members," Sampsell-Jones said. "This will be swapping him out with someone else who is more likely to be a center-left justice. That move will definitely impact some of its cases going forward."

Sampsell-Jones said the DFL governor's previous appointments have actually given the court a slightly more conservative lean. He points to two justices who left the bench under Dayton: Alan Page and Paul Anderson. Anderson was appointed by former GOP Gov. Arne Carlson, but became known for siding with the more liberal justices.

"They were farther out to the left," said Sampsell-Jones, noting that the two former jurists were among the court's strongest progressives.

Charles Reid, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, said Dayton's appointees may not dramatically alter the ideological makeup of the court, but he expects another development. "You'll see greater concern with vulnerable members of society," Reid said. "We may in that sense have a more empathetic court."

'Need to have balance'

Anderson, who retired from the court in 2013, said that "in this day and age, we need to have [gender] balance."

Anderson said he appreciated having the perspective of colleagues like Page, who retired last year. "I cannot underestimate the helpfulness of his different perspective," Anderson said.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman recalled McKeig as the bright young lawyer he hired in 1992 straight out of law school. "She's bright. She's engaging. She's enthusiastic. She's full of energy," he said in an interview.

"We all bring our life experiences," Freeman said. "Anne knows what it means for people not being able to afford formula or diapers. She knows it. She's lived it. She's seen it, and that kind of breadth of experience, when you're talking about controversial legal issues, to have that personal touch and understanding is enormously valuable."

10 states with female majority

Minnesota will be among 10 states where women make up the majority of the court of last resort, joining Wisconsin, California and Arkansas, among others. Minnesota was the first, achieving that landmark more than two decades ago.

In the waning moments of his tenure, former DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich named a fourth woman, Sandra Gardebring, to the Supreme Court in 1991, giving the state's top court a female majority.

McKeig earned her law degree from Hamline University School of Law in 1992. She earned her bachelor of arts from St. Catherine University in 1989. She previously worked as an assistant county attorney in the child protection division for more than 16 years. She's also an adjunct professor at Mitchell Hamline Law School.

The governor's selection does not need legislative approval. But McKeig will be on the ballot in 2018, giving voters the final say on whether she continues to serve.

(c)2016 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)