Minnesota judge Rosalie Wahl inspired many lawyers, and now a film

Co-producer John Kaul, far left, text and graphics designer John Dehn, and co-producer Emily Haddad, right, work on post-production editing of their documentary film about long time Lake Elmo resident and Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Wahl in St. Paul, Monday morning, October 29, 2012.
AP Photo/The St. Paul Pioneer Press, John Doman

MARY DIVINE, St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Emily Haddad was working as an attorney when she heard a speech that changed her life.

The speaker was former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Wahl. The title of her talk was "On Being a Public Citizen in Dark Times." It was February 2003.

Haddad, who lives in Stillwater, said Wahl's speech was a call to action.

"I was working as a corporate lawyer (at Wells Fargo), but I'd been dabbling in screenwriting," she said. "I wanted to do more in film, but it was kind of hard to make a change. It was after 9/11 and (Sen. Paul) Wellstone's death, and we were headed into the Iraq War, and I was very, very down about the world."

Wahl's speech, which focused on her efforts to desegregate housing at the University of Kansas during World War II, inspired Haddad to quit her job four months later and go to film school at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.

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When Haddad was thinking about ideas for documentary films a few years later, her thoughts turned to Wahl, 88, a longtime Lake Elmo resident who now lives in St. Paul.

Wahl, known as a champion of personal freedoms, entered law school at age 38, raised five children while attending night classes and jumped from the state public defender's office to the Supreme Court.

"I didn't know much about her life, but I knew she was an extremely inspiring woman," Haddad said. "She brought the audience to tears."

Emily Haddad
Stillwater, Minn., filmmaker Emily Haddad, works on the documentary film about former Lake Elmo, Minn., resident and Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Wahl (on the monitor in background) during post production in St. Paul, Monday morning, October 29, 2012.
AP Photo/The St. Paul Pioneer Press, John Doman

Haddad and a friend, John Kaul, a lobbyist who lives in Afton, formed Lightshed Productions to make their movies. Kaul had friends who knew Wahl, and they helped persuade the former justice to take part, he said.

Their 56-minute documentary, "Girl from Birch Creek," debuted in Oakdale last week, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported. Another showing is planned Dec. 5 at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Haddad said.

"It's a film that kept us going for four years because of who she is and what she accomplished," Kaul said. "It's been a wonderful project."

Haddad and Kaul received a $76,000 Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage grant to help pay for postproduction work, music by Peter Ostroushko and narration by Nina Totenberg, legal affairs correspondent for National Public Radio.

"Girl from Birch Creek" -- the title comes from the area of Kansas where Wahl was born -- tells the story of a woman who worked tirelessly for equal justice, regardless of race, gender or economic status, Haddad said.

Wahl was an underdog herself, Haddad said. Wahl's mother died when she was 3; she was raised by her grandmother in southern Kansas after her younger brother and grandfather died in a train accident when she was 7. Her grandmother was forced to sell the family farm.

"In all those years, I never knew how poor we were," Wahl says in the film. "I only knew the richness -- the warm, close community with our little rural school at the center, the aunts and uncles and cousins living on farms nearby."

Wahl graduated from the University of Kansas in 1946 with a sociology degree, and then married and spent 13 years as a homemaker and community volunteer in Lake Elmo. She worked to get a Washington County library system started, but local businessmen persuaded the county commissioners not to approve the plan, according to the film.

Wahl decided to go to law school, she says in the film, because she "was tired of sitting outside doors when the people inside, mostly men, made decisions."

"I wasn't thinking of any great career in law. ... It just seemed like law was a tool, and it was one way to get inside of those doors," she says.

Haddad interviewed dozens of people while researching the film and made three trips to Kansas to gather footage.

"To do good history, you basically have to know everything about the subject," Kaul said. "But to do a good documentary, you can't tell all. That's where Emily's magic is. You have to synthesize it."

Haddad, 61, spent part of her childhood in Rice Lake, Wis. Her family moved to White Bear Lake in 1962, and she graduated from White Bear Lake High School in 1969. She graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1974 with a bachelor's degree in French and from the university law school in 1977.

She has made several films, including "Voices of Hope," which features interviews with 12 women with breast cancer. Haddad was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, after "Voices of Hope" was completed.

"Doing 'Girl from Birch Creek' helped a lot," said Haddad, who is in remission. "Having a film I really believe in makes my life worth living."

Haddad and Kaul's next project is a documentary about World War I based on the letters of Walter Lindahl, Haddad's great-uncle, who was killed during the war.

"The anniversaries of World War I are coming up, and I think war is an interesting topic that needs to be explored," she said.

But in the meantime, her focus is on Wahl, whom Haddad calls "one of the most influential women in Minnesota's 20th-century history."

Wahl took a job with the state public defender's office after graduating from William Mitchell College of Law in 1967. For the next six years, she represented burglars, rapists and murderers when they appealed to the Supreme Court. (Minnesota didn't have a Court of Appeals until 1983.)

"One of the things I've just got in my bones from constitutional law is that you shouldn't take anyone's life, liberty or property without due process of the law," Wahl says in the film. "And so it was my job to make the best possible presentation in regard to their case with the facts you had and argue as hard as you could."

People trusted Wahl enormously, said Harriet Lansing, a retired state appeals court judge. "They trusted her with the things that were threatening their lives," she said. "She really lived with those cases. She cared deeply about those people."

Wahl became a law professor at William Mitchell in 1973 and was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1977 by Gov. Rudy Perpich, whom women's groups had been pressuring to appoint a woman to the bench.

The Minnesota Supreme Court later became the first state Supreme Court in the country that had a majority of women. "That was no accident," Lansing said. "That was because of Rosalie."

Wahl headed two Supreme Court task forces that studied race and gender bias in the state's judicial system. Among the court's many recommendations were that all judges and court personnel receive training on victims' rights and cultural diversity; that prosecution and defense offices work to improve minority recruitment; and that the Legislature establish programs to aid domestic-abuse victims.

"Diversity was one of her great interests and commitments," Lansing said. "When I think of her, I think of what I call 'the jurisprudence of inclusivity.' She wanted everybody to be included, and she wanted them to be included in a fair way."

Wahl's daughter, Sara Wahl, said her mother is pleased to be the subject of a documentary.

"She's such a down-to-earth person, but I think she's pleased that her story is getting out," said Sara Wahl, a senior assistant attorney with the Hennepin County attorney's office. "She's been such an inspiration to many women lawyers and judges. She just keeps people moving. She was a real role model for me, as well.

"For being a judge, she's very nonjudgmental," she said.


Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press