Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge Wilhelmina Wright will soon take her place on the state Supreme Court.
Chosen by Gov. Mark Dayton over three other finalists, Wright will be the first state Supreme Court justice who is both African American and female.
She replaces Justice Helen Meyer, who announced her retirement in May. Thirty-five people applied for the job, and the Commission on Judicial Selection winnowed the field down to four candidates: District Court Judge Tanya Bransford, Appeals Court judges Margaret Chutich and Wilhelmina Wright, and attorney David Lillehaug. Dayton said it was tough to choose among them, but the clarity of Wright's written opinions stood out.
"I was greatly impressed with her intellectual rigor, as well as her ability to take extremely complex issues and apply the law to them and apply justice to them and apply good judgment to them," Dayton said.
The governor also cited Wright's long experience on the bench. She has authored more than 700 opinions in the decade she's been on the appeals court. Before that she was a Ramsey County trial judge and an assistant federal prosecutor.
Wright grew up in Norfolk, Virginia in the 1960s and '70s. She said at that time her school district was still coming to terms with Brown v. Board of Education — the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision that struck down racial segregation in schools.
"It was my mother's sheer determination to say, 'the Supreme Court said it, my children deserve to benefit from this court order and I am going to work hard to ensure that my children get the benefit of a desegregated and quality education,' " Wright said. "So my mother stood toe-to-toe with the superintendent of the Norfolk Public Schools."
That was an experience Wright carried with her to college at Yale and Harvard Law School, where she edited the Harvard Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review. As a young attorney, she handled education cases at a law firm in Washington. Wright says more than anything, the Brown case shaped her legal philosophy.
"It is that experience that really informs my understanding of what it means to be a justice and a judge in Minnesota," Wright said. "Because court orders have to be followed. They have to be meaningful. They have to reflect the yearnings, the strivings, the aspirations of all Minnesotans."
Peter Knapp, professor at William Mitchell College of Law, said Wright will bring a new perspective to the Minnesota Supreme Court, but one that is not particularly ideological. Knapp says Wright's experience on the bench likely outweighed any political considerations the governor may have had.
"I think so far Minnesota has been mercifully free of political intrigue with respect to judicial appointments," Knapp said. "But I'm sure the folks at the governor's office looked at Judge Wright's record and her court of appeals decisions very carefully before making this appointment."
While Wright will not face a confirmation hearing in the legislature, her position is not entirely free of politics. She will serve through the end of Justice Meyer's six-year term, which ends in 2016. Wright then faces re-election on the statewide ballot.
A date for Wright's swearing-in ceremony has not been set.