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Two New Justices Make Minnesota Supreme Court Majority Women

Gov. Tim Walz appointed Theodora Gaïtas and Sarah Hennesy to the state’s highest court on Monday. When Gaïtas and Hennesy join the court, Walz will have selected four of the seven justices.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz appointed two women to the state Supreme Court on Monday, April 22, returning the court to a female majority for the first time since 1994.

Court of Appeals Judge Theodora Gaïtas and Stearns County Chief Judge Sarah Hennesy will fill the seats held by retiring Justices Margaret Chutich and G. Barry Anderson, respectively. Both new justices have extensive experience in aiding lower-income citizens with criminal, appellate and civil matters.

Walz conducted interviews with six finalists last week. All were notified of his choices Sunday. The selections mean that Walz has appointed four of the seven justices on the court. When Anderson steps down next month, all seven justices will have been appointed by a DFL governor.

In 1991, Gov. Rudy Perpich's appointment of Justice Sandra Gardebring gave the Minnesota Supreme Court a 4-3 majority of women. Gardebring joined Justices M. Jeanne Coyne, Esther Tomljanovich and Rosalie Wahl, who was the state's first female justice. Wahl, appointed in 1977 by Rudy Perpich, retired in 1994, ending the female majority — until now.

The governor didn't tout the gender of the appointments in his written news release Monday. Instead, he talked about the experience and qualities of the new justices. Walz said Gaïtas understands the complexities of the system and "is a remarkable jurist who has served at all levels of our judiciary."

In August 2020, Walz appointed Gaïtas to the Court of Appeals. Before that, she served two years on the Hennepin County District court bench as an appointee of Gov. Mark Dayton.

The incoming justice's longest tenure before joining the Hennepin County bench was as an assistant public defender in the Office of the Minnesota Appellate Public Defender, which handles criminal appeals from throughout the state for indigent clients. Gaïtas worked in that office from 1998-2013.

Cathryn Middlebrook, managing attorney in the state appellate office, said she has long "been impressed by the complete person that Judge Gaïtas is. Her experience, deep knowledge of the law, and reasoned and compassionate commitment to justice brings an essential perspective to the court and to the State of Minnesota."

Walz noted that Gaïtas is co-chair of the Tribal Court State Court Forum, a committee that promotes collaboration between tribal courts and state courts in Minnesota. Gaïtas, 53, will succeed Chutich, a Dayton appointee, who plans to leave the court July 31.

Dayton also appointed Hennesy to the Stearns County bench in 2012. Hennesy will succeed Justice G. Barry Anderson, who departs the court May 10 after 20 years of service.

Walz said of Hennesy, "Not only is she a brilliant legal mind with extensive judicial experience, but she is a leader who knows how to move the needle towards justice."

Chutich said in a written statement that she is thrilled by Hennesy's appointment. "She is fair, experienced, compassionate, and respectful of every person who appears before her," Chutich said. "It's a great day for the court and for Minnesota."

Justice Anne McKeig was similarly effusive, calling Hennesy humble, wise, kind and talented. "Her leadership experience, along with her district court street smarts, will serve the court well," McKeig's statement said.

Before joining the bench, Hennesy, 54, was a staff attorney for six years at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid in St. Cloud, providing counsel to low-income residents on civil matters. She also worked in private practice and as a criminal public defender in Alexandria, Va., before coming to Minnesota. From 1994-1996, she worked in the Iowa State Appellate Public Defender's Office.

Hennesy has a B.A. from Central College in Pella, Iowa, and a J.D. from Drake Law School in Des Moines.

Gaïtas earned both her B.A. and J.D. degrees from the University of Minnesota.

The appointments do not require state Senate confirmation. The justices will have to stand for statewide election, but not until 2026.

Anderson, 69, was the lone remaining Republican appointee on the court. He will hit the mandatory retirement age of 70 in October.

Walz has now appointed two men and two women to the court. His first appointee was Gordon Moore, a Worthington-based Nobles County judge, in May 2020.

Last August, Walz chose Justice Karl Procaccini to fill the seat vacated by the elevation of Justice Natalie Hudson to chief, succeeding long-time Chief Lorie Gildea, who stepped off the bench and now works in private practice.

The process of selecting the two new justices followed the routine path with the Commission on Judicial Selection forwarding the six finalists to Walz. Last summer, the governor bypassed the process and interviewed only Procaccini, who was the governor's general counsel until last June.

The finalists not selected by Walz were Lisa Beane, senior associate general counsel at the University of Minnesota; Elizabeth Bentley, founder and director of the Civil Rights Appellate Clinic at the U; Court of Appeals Judge Keala Ede and Liz Kramer, solicitor general in Attorney General Keith Ellison's office.

The seventh justice on the court is Paul Thissen, a former DFL speaker of the Minnesota House appointed by Dayton in 2018.

Hudson will be compelled to retire no later than January 2026 when she turns 70, just as Walz's term ends.

©2024 StarTribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC
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