Politics and Government

Walz picks Natalie Hudson as new Minnesota chief justice

Justice Natalie E. Hudson is seen
Supreme Court Justice Natalie Hudson is seen during the oral arguments in the Cruz-Guzman case at the Richfield High School Auditorium on May 2.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News file

Updated: 4:35 p.m.

Justice Natalie Hudson will rise to the role of Minnesota Supreme Court chief, becoming the first chief justice of color and the first Democratic-appointed judicial branch leader in 25 years.

Gov. Tim Walz introduced Hudson on Wednesday as the replacement for long-serving Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea, who will retire in October after 13 years in the prime spot on Minnesota’s bench. Walz also selected his former office general counsel Karl Procaccini to fill the associate justice slot Hudson held.

Hudson, who is one of only a few Black justices in state history, has been on the Supreme Court since 2015 after being put there by then-DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. 

Walz called Hudson “a leader and consensus builder.”

“I know that she will use her decades of judicial experience and deep understanding of our justice system to lead the Judicial Branch with a steady hand and strong conviction.”

Hudson said she’ll approach the job “with humility and resolve” and aim to uphold the quality court services she said her predecessors built up. 

At a gathering in the rotunda of the Minnesota Capitol, Hudson noted the historic nature of her appointment.

“When you're the first woman in a position, first person of color, you recognize the representational value of that, because it's so important for our little black girls, black boys, and women to see women and people of color in positions of authority and to dream for that,” Hudson said.

Natalie Hudson
Gov. Mark Dayton announced the appointment of Judge Natalie E. Hudson to the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2015.
Renee Jones Schneider | Star Tribune via AP file

Gildea praised her colleague as a judge with “collegial spirit” and “unparalleled work ethic.”

Hudson previously sat more than a dozen years on the Minnesota Court of Appeals, served in private practice and public legal roles and was an assistant dean at the former Hamline University School of Law.

At 66, her time as chief will be limited. Minnesota has a mandatory retirement age for judges of 70. That would mean a departure by January 2027 or sooner, potentially setting up an end-of-term replacement by Walz or a monumental early pick by his successor.

The chief justice is also a member of the state Board of Pardons otherwise made up of the governor and attorney general.

While the seven-member Supreme Court is now composed of a majority of appointees of Democratic governors, the seat of chief justice had been occupied by a string of Republican appointees since 1998. That was the final year under Alexander “Sandy” Keith, who was the last chief justice named by a Democratic governor when he was put there by then-Gov. Rudy Perpich in 1990.

It is custom that the top spot on the court be filled by a justice who had been on the court before. Only once since 1933 had an outsider landed in the chief justice role; that was Eric Magnuson who served from 2008 to 2010.

In Minnesota, the tradition is that justices are selected by governors; only Justice Alan Page got his seat in recent times through direct election first. Justices and other state judges periodically stand for election, though there are seldom competitive contests.

That’s meant the party in charge of the governor’s office holds sway over the philosophical makeup of the judicial branch. Because Minnesota is in its fourth consecutive term of a Democratic governor, the Supreme Court is almost entirely made up of that party’s appointees.

When Gildea departs, Justice G. Barry Anderson will be the sole remaining Republican appointee; he hits the mandatory judicial retirement age of 70 in October 2024.

The court’s other members and appointing governors are:

  • Margaret Chutich, appointed in 2016 by Dayton

  • Anne McKeig, appointed in 2016 by Dayton

  • Paul Thissen, appointed in 2018 by Dayton

  • Gordon Moore, appointed in 2020 by Walz

The appointment of Procaccini ends Minnesota’s status as having a majority of women on the Supreme Court. He comes from a University of St. Thomas School of Law teaching position, but he spent more time as general counsel to Walz in his first term.

He holds degrees from Harvard and American University in Cairo.

Procaccini, 40, took a lead role in drafting the executive orders that Walz used to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Walz said Procaccini exhibited “steadiness, humility and an exceptional legal mind” during that difficult period. 

“There is no one more prepared for the rigors and challenges that come with this important position,” Walz said.

Some Republicans criticized Walz’s choice of Procaccini.

“With the departure of Justice Gildea, Governor Walz had an opportunity to select a pragmatic voice and ensure Minnesotans have a diverse set of views on the Minnesota Supreme Court,” said House Minority leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring. “Instead, he picked the chief architect of the 2020 lockdowns and mandates that destroyed businesses and kept our kids out of the classroom with zero judicial experience to serve on the state’s highest court.“

Two people stand in the Capitol
Incoming Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Natalie Hudson and Justice Karl Procaccini at the Minnesota Capitol on Wednesday.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Procaccini said his previous job would not affect his decisions on the bench.

“When a judge raises their right hand and takes that oath of office they are swearing their loyalty to the people of Minnesota, to the constitution of Minnesota, to the laws of Minnesota, and leaving behind whatever past interest client's activities they might have had in their past, and I take that responsibility incredibly seriously,” he said.

Other governors, including Republican Tim Pawlenty and DFLer Dayton, have named justices who had been attorneys for them at points in their political careers.