Minnesota Supreme Court dives into lake name controversy

People walk and bike the trails of Lake Calhoun.
People walk and bike the trails around Lake Calhoun, also known by its Dakota name Bde Maka Ska, meaning White Earth Lake, in Minneapolis on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Justices on Minnesota’s Supreme Court and the attorneys appearing before them Wednesday seldom used the words “Lake Calhoun” or “Bde Maka Ska” as the court weighed a case that could decide the name of the largest Minneapolis lake.

Instead, the seven justices delved into the statutory power of the DNR commissioner to make a 2018 name change despite a law that might restrict it. And they challenged a lawyer for the Save Lake Calhoun group that opposed the switch to Bde Maka Ska on its ability to press its case.

Arguing to preserve the rebrand, state Solicitor General Liz Kramer contended that the Legislature long ago vested authority in the Department of Natural Resources to name or rename lakes, including “when there are offensive and derogatory names.”

The change came years after some local residents first pushed to strip the honor to John C. Calhoun, a 19th century southern politician who backed slavery and laws deemed hostile to Native Americans.

Justice G. Barry Anderson sounded uncomfortable with putting so much power in the hands of a single state official.

“It seems to me we are very close to royal prerogative land here where the commissioner gets to decide whatever the commissioner wants to decide and there is no practical check,” he said.

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Chief Justice Lorie Skerjven Gildea also struck a skeptical note, labeling the DNR move as “a flat-out end around the process” that state lawmakers wrote.

“I fundamentally disagree,” Kramer said.

Central to the case is which state law is applied and how it’s interpreted. Minnesota has a law that limits the ability of local officials to change a body of water’s name when it has stood for 40 or more years. But other laws appear to give more leeway, which Kramer seized on.

“The Legislature gave full authority to DNR to have its own process for giving and changing lake names,” she said.

Erick Kaardal, a lawyer for the Save Lake Calhoun group, was just as insistent that the law was on his side.

“It’s very simple: The state Legislature wanted to create a limitation on change so it made sure the DNR commissioner when it was changing a name had to get county board approval, which was limited to lake names of under 40 years,” he said.

Kaardal didn’t escape sharp questions, including an exchange with Justice Anne McKeig.

“What was the name before Lake Calhoun?” McKeig asked, the only time the lake’s name was used by a justice.

“There are disputes about that. One of the proposals is Bde Maka Ska,” Kaardal said.

“And that was named by the Dakota people, correct?” McKeig pressed further. “And that lake name was in existence for well in excess of 40 years, yes?”

“Yes, it was used, yes,” Kaardal conceded.

Justice David Lillehaug posed a hypothetical question about what it would take to change the name of a “Green Bay Packer Lake.”

“We all agree that is not a correct and appropriate name,” Lillehaug said.

“And it’s offensive,” Gildea chimed in to laughter.

Kaardal said it would be up to people wanting the change to approach the Legislature for a law granting the DNR special legislative authority to rename the lake.

Kaardal also faced questions about the special avenue he used to get the case to court. He filed it under a special writ that allows citizen actions against perceived government abuse of power.

His clients lost at the district court level but had the case reinstated by the Court of Appeals. Several justices expressed doubts about whether the use of a “writ of quo warranto” applies here.

Gildea wondered aloud what would happen if the court rules merely that the legal challenge to the Bde Maka Ska renaming wasn’t properly filed.

“Can they have a do-over?” Gildea asked.

“It is conceivable that they could start over,” Kramer responded.

Outside the courtroom, Kaardal said he doubted his clients would start fresh.

“I think this is the end of the road,” Kaardal said.

A ruling is likely to come in a matter of months.