Two justices mark historic firsts with their installations to Minnesota's Supreme Court

A woman holds up her right and while her left is placed on a bible
Natalie Hudson is sworn-in as the twenty-third Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court during a ceremony at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul on Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. She is the first Black woman to serve as Chief Justice in the state’s history.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The Minnesota Supreme Court marked a set of historic firsts as Chief Justice Natalie Hudson and Associate Justice Karl Procaccini were formally installed to their posts Monday afternoon during a ceremony fittingly held at the History Center.

Hudson is the first person of color to lead the court. Procaccini is the first person of Muslim faith — he converted to Islam before marriage — to sit on the court. Both were appointed to their roles by Gov. Tim Walz in August and took their initial oaths via signature in early October. 

Hundreds of current and former elected officials, justices, judges, attorneys and others filled the auditorium for the traditional investiture ceremony. From the outset, speakers and musical performers noted the significance of the day.

“Since 1849, the Minnesota Supreme Court has had 21 Chief Justices; 19 of them have been men, two have been women and none have been a person of color. Today that changes forever,” Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said to warm applause. “For the first time in state history, our judiciary will be led by a Black woman: Chief Justice Natalie Hudson.” 

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Choir members sing into microphones
The Sounds of Blackness performs “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” before Natalie Hudson is sworn-in as the twenty-third Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court during a ceremony at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul on Monday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

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

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, Hudson will only be eligible to hold the post for four years before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70. That will give Walz another selection before his term is up.

The chief justice is also a member of the state Board of Pardons otherwise made up of the governor and attorney general. She said she will aim to ensure that Minnesota’s courts are accessible, inclusive, innovative and fair in her new role. 

“Today’s ceremony is a testament to Minnesota's progress and to the enduring efforts to broaden diversity and representation within our justice system,” Hudson said. “Our justice system is better, indeed, our communities are better when we allow and encourage the views of others, to inform what we say and what we do.”

Vanne Owens Hayes is the former dean of students at the University of Minnesota Law School and a former classmate of Hudson. She and others who have worked with Hudson said the new chief justice would be well-suited to the position given her past experience and her personality.

A woman zips up a black robe as people applaud
Natalie Hudson dons her robe after being sworn-in as the twenty-third Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court in a ceremony at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul on Monday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“She’s a calm voice in a storm,” Owens Hayes said. “She brings to the bench much more than legal knowledge. She brings heart and soul, compassion and caring cultural identity, community awareness and integrity. She’s moving into her purpose and blessed to have the opportunity.”

Procaccini, 40, comes from a University of St. Thomas School of Law teaching position, but he also spent time as general counsel to Walz in his first term. Procaccini helped orchestrate the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which was a large part of why Walz chose to appoint him.

“At the heart of those decisions, at a time when lives were in the balance. It was Justice Karl Procaccini who was there to make sure that we were doing things the right way,” Walz said. ‘Decision after decision after decision, what I saw was always in the best interest of Minnesotans with the highest ethics.”

While Procaccini has said he enjoyed working in the governor’s office, he told reporters earlier this fall that the role would not affect his decision making on the bench. In his remarks Monday, Procaccini said he would use his role to protect the rule of law.

“The rule of law is so fragile, and it requires constant upkeep by new generations. And this requires a renewed and enduring commitment by each generation to ensure that our courts act with integrity,” he told the crowd at the Minnesota History Center after taking his oath with his hand on the Constitution and the Quran.

A man takes an oath surrounded by people
Karl Procaccini is sworn-in as the ninety-seventh Associate Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court during a ceremony at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul on Monday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

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

The official installations increase the number of DFL-appointed justices on the seven-member bench to six. Justice G. Barry Anderson will be the sole remaining Republican appointee; he hits the mandatory judicial retirement age of 70 in October of 2024.

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.

In Minnesota, justices are typically chosen 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 rarely are competitive races.