Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Learn about Minnesota‘s newest Supreme Court Justices, Judges Theodora Gaïtas and Sarah Hennesy

Two women stand and receive applause
Newly-announced Minnesota Supreme Court justice appointees Sarah Hennesy (left) and Theodora Gaïtas are welcomed by Gov. Tim Walz during a ceremony at the State Capitol on Monday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Minnesota’s Supreme Court will soon welcome two new justices — the 97th and 98th to hold the title since statehood.

Late Monday morning, Gov. Tim Walz introduced the associate-justices-in-waiting, Judges Theodora Gaïtas and Sarah Hennesy. They will replace two retiring justices and in the process return the state’s highest court to a majority of women.

MPR News’ politics editor Brian Bakst joined MPR News host Nina Moini with details on the selections.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

[THEME MUSIC] NINA MOINI: Our top story this afternoon, Minnesota's Supreme Court will soon welcome two new judges, the 97th and 98th, to ever hold that title since statehood. Within the last hour, Governor Tim Walz introduced the associate justices in waiting. They are Judges Theodora or Teddy Gaitas and Sarah Hennessy. They'll replace two retiring justices and, in the process, return the state's highest court to a majority of women.

Here to fill us in on the selections is MPR politics editor Brian Bakst. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN BAKST: Hey, Nina.

NINA MOINI: Brian, remind us why did Governor Walz have to fill these vacancies in the first place.

BRIAN BAKST: Because two justices are about to step down, G. Barry Anderson will retire next month. He's the longest-serving member of the court right now and is approaching the mandatory retirement age of 70 so he wouldn't have been able to seek another six years on the court. And in July, Justice Margaret Chutich will depart. She's been on the court since 2016 and was the first openly LGBTQ justice Minnesota has had. Chutich says she's looking forward to having more time for other pursuits but she hasn't said what those are.

NINA MOINI: OK. And who are these new justices starting with the one who will join the court first, Sarah Hennessy?

BRIAN BAKST: Yes, Hennessy will move into the post that Anderson will leave. She has been a judge since 2012 when she was named a district court judge. Currently, she's Chief Judge of the seventh judicial district based in St. Cloud. She also has experience in trial courts and appellate law in Minnesota and other places. Hennessy has been a firm attorney as well as a public defender. Away from the court, she's coached mock trial teams and helped teach English as a second language. She told of going from a small town in Iowa as the daughter of a janitor to the intimidating classes of law school. She said she had to learn a new legal language, saying it was like breaking into a secret club. It left an impression.

SARAH HENNESY: And the legal profession was like a secret club that had its own special language to which I did not belong. And while I have since fortunately become fluent in that language, I have never forgotten how entirely unnavigable the system looks from the outside. I promise to continue to work to make sure that our legal system is equally accessible to all Minnesotans.

NINA MOINI: And how about Judge Gaitas?

BRIAN BAKST: She's taking one step up the legal ladder. She's currently on the Minnesota Court of Appeals, previously appointed to that position by Walz. Gaitas was a district court judge prior to that. Her colleagues, as you note, refer to her as Teddy. She also has experience in private practice as well as criminal defense. She talked about access to justice in her remarks as well.

THEODORA GAITAS: I'm deeply committed to our state court system and to ensuring that the law in Minnesota is applied fairly and equally. Our state court system is a vital resource for the people of Minnesota, and I want to make sure that we are serving the people of Minnesota well.

BRIAN BAKST: Nina, she's been very active in bar associations advisory committees, around judicial issues, has been an adjunct law professor, and also a volunteer for high school mock trial.

NINA MOINI: Yeah, it's nice to hear about their past and their personal lives. Remind us of the broader court makeup, though, and why these selections are so notable.

BRIAN BAKST: Well, these are the third and fourth new justices that Walz has named to the court, as well as picking the current chief justice from within the court. If you're doing the math, that means he'll have named a majority of the court now. And with Anderson's departure, all seven will have been appointed by DFL governors. So when Hennessy takes her spot, there will be four women and three men on the court.

NINA MOINI: And has there been a female majority on this court before, Brian?

BRIAN BAKST: Twice before. Once in the early 1990s and again when then-Governor Mark Dayton made a series of selections during his two terms in office.

NINA MOINI: And so there are upcoming judicial elections involving other justices. Can you tell us who's facing voters?

BRIAN BAKST: That's right. Well, governors appoint justices. In most circumstances, they must periodically face voters. Their first election usually comes about a year or two after they get on the court and then the seats are up every six years after that. So in November, three justices are on the ballot. Chief Justice Natalie Hudson and Associate Justices Anne McKeig and Karl Procaccini.

NINA MOINI: And are these contests typically would you consider them competitive?

BRIAN BAKST: No, they're typically walkovers. Other states have experienced more ideologically-driven elections but Minnesota has so far escaped that. Of the three, Procaccini might draw the most spirited-challenge because he's the newest. And having been on the court since just last fall and he was also a former Walz office lawyer who helped draft many of the COVID-19 orders. But his campaign account is already brimming with money.

NINA MOINI: And when will these newest justices be on ballots?

BRIAN BAKST: Because of the timing of the selections, they won't be up for the first time until 2026.

NINA MOINI: And Brian, I understand that in a nice coincidence you'll be speaking this week with one of the departing justices on Politics Friday. Is that right?

BRIAN BAKST: You're correct. We'll have an exit interview of sorts with Justice G. Barry Anderson now that his retirement is just a few weeks away. We hope he'll share more about his time on the court and offer a better window for the public into the branch of government that can be the hardest for many people to understand.

NINA MOINI: Yeah, I'm looking forward to that. Thanks, Brian.

BRIAN BAKST: Glad to do it, Nina.

NINA MOINI: That's MPR News politics editor Brian Bakst. On All Things Considered this afternoon, our Capitol reporter Dana Ferguson will have more on today's selections and what Governor Tim Walz had to say about him.

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