Dayton names appeals judge to Supreme Court

Published 9:09 am Tuesday, August 21, 2012

ST. PAUL (AP) — Gov. Mark Dayton on Monday appointed Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge Wilhelmina Wright to the state Supreme Court, the first black woman chosen to serve on the state’s highest court.

Wright, 48, is Dayton’s first appointment to the Supreme Court and the first by a Democratic governor since 1991. Dayton interviewed the St. Paul resident along with three other finalists and said he was impressed by her intellect and judgment.

As he read several of Wright’s judicial opinions, Dayton said, “I found values and principles that I want to see reflected in Minnesota’s courts.”

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Wright has served on the state Court of Appeals since 2002, appointed there by then-Gov. Jesse Ventura. She was one of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s finalists for the state Supreme Court seat that went to Justice G. Barry Anderson in 2004.

Wright, a St. Paul resident, spoke of growing up in Norfolk, Va., in the early 1970s when leaders of its public school district were still holding out against enforcing the U.S. Supreme Court’s desegregation order issued in Brown vs. Board of Education nearly 20 years earlier.

“My mother stood toe to toe with the superintendent of Norfolk,” Wright said, and demanded that her children be allowed to attend desegregated schools. “By her example, that played a major role in my experience of understanding the rule of law and its importance.”

Wright went on to graduate from Yale University and obtain a law degree from Harvard University. She practiced law in Washington, D.C., where she primarily represented school groups in their efforts to enhance educational opportunities for public school students.

“She grew up in a period where she was personally tested by the ramifications of Brown vs. the Board of Education,” said Josie Johnson, a longtime Minnesota civil rights activist in attendance at Dayton’s office as he announced Wright’s appointment. “I see this as a true advancement for equal justice under the law.”

In 1995, Wright joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minnesota, where she prosecuted violent crimes and economic fraud. She served briefly as a Ramsey County District Court judge before Ventura appointed her to the Court of Appeals. She wrote more than 700 opinions in a decade on that panel.

Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea said Wright would be sworn in soon. She replaces Justice Helen Meyer, a Ventura appointee who announced her retirement in May and officially stepped down earlier in August. Wright and Gildea will be the only women on a seven-member court that once had a majority of them.

Once on the court, Wright will be the only current justice put there by a Democratic governor. Four of its current members were appointed by Pawlenty, one by former Gov. Arne Carlson and one — Justice Alan Page — won his seat by direct election. Justices who are appointed by governors ultimately have to defend the seats in an election; Wright will be on the statewide ballot in 2014.

Dayton will get to make at least one more Supreme Court appointment. In 2014, before Dayton’s first term is up, Justice Paul Anderson will reach the court’s mandatory retirement age of 70.

Wright cited a former and a current justice as key inspirations: Justice Rosalie Wahl, who served on the court from 1977 to 1994 and was its first woman justice; and Page, who in 1992 became its first black justice.

“My path has been paved by these two extraordinary justices,” Wright said. “They inspired my service to all Minnesotans.”