Politics and Government

Walz appoints Theodora Gaïtas and Sarah Hennesy to Minnesota Supreme Court

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

Updated: 2:15 p.m.

The churn on the Minnesota Supreme Court got closer to settling Monday when Gov. Tim Walz announced the two people who will replace departing justices on the court, which has welcomed three members and a new chief within the last year.

Walz announced the appointments of Theodora Gaïtas and Sarah Hennesy — both judges on lower courts — to replace retiring justices Margaret H. Chutich and G. Barry Anderson.

The appointments will again give the court a female majority. And all seven members will have been selected by DFL governors. Hennesy is set to replace Anderson, who will retire on May 10. Gaïtas will replace Chutich, who is set to retire at the end of July.

A woman speaks into a mic at a podium
Minnesota Supreme Court justice appointee Theodora Gaïtas thanks Gov. Tim Walz during a ceremony at the State Capitol on Monday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Walz interviewed candidates last week after a state merit selection panel advanced six earlier this month. Both Hennesy, 54, and Gaïtas, 53, serve as judges now — Hennesy in the Seventh Judicial District, and Gaïtas on the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

During a ceremony at the Capitol, Walz lauded both appointees for their strong legal backgrounds and said they would bring strong senses of compassion and empathy to the roles.

A woman speaks at a podium while the governor and lt. governor listen
Minnesota Supreme Court justice appointee Sarah Hennesy (right) answers questions from the press next to Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan (right) and Gov. Tim Walz (center) following a ceremony at the State Capitol on Monday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The governor said Hennesy has a brilliant legal mind and is “a leader who knows how to move the needle towards justice.” Meanwhile, he said that Gaïtas was a “remarkable jurist who has served at all levels of our judiciary.”

Gaïtas serves as a judge on the Minnesota Court of Appeals. She previously served as a judge in the Fourth Judicial District, where she presided over a felony caseload in the criminal division. Gaïtas is also co-chair of the Tribal Court State Court Forum.

Hennesy is the chief judge of the Seventh Judicial District. She has practiced law in appellate and trial courts in Iowa, Virginia and Washington, D.C. She worked as a staff attorney at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid in St. Cloud. She also serves as the chair of the Minnesota Supreme Court Advisory Committee on the General Rules of Practice.

Both appointees have a background in public defense work, and Gaïtas said that gave them a unique vantage point on the court. Associate Justice Paul Thissen also has a public defense background.

“As a judge having that perspective, you remember when people appear before you what what it looks like to an individual from an indigent background, navigating the legal system,” Gaïtas said. “I think it brings a sense of kindness and compassion to to your decision making.”

Hennesy told the crowd in the Capitol rotunda she didn’t grow up in a family that practiced law; her father worked two jobs to support the family and her mother made the clothes she wore. She said it was initially intimidating entering torts class in law school.

“The legal profession was like a secret club that had its own special language to which I did not belong,” Hennesy said. “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.”

Chief Justice Natalie Hudson thanked the governor for asking her opinion in selecting the new justices and said he made strong choices. She said having the new members seated on the court would end a season of turmoil.

“Over the past six months or seven the court has added three new faces and a new chief justice. This is no small change for a body that prides itself on being collaborative and collegial,” Hudson said.

“Our court works hard to find common ground or challenging legal issues that come before us and to work together towards achieving the fairest outcomes,” she continued. “My commitment to the people of Minnesota as their chief justice is that our state Supreme Court is going to embrace this new chapter with enthusiasm and collegiality and cooperation and with a renewed commitment to delivering the fairest and best possible system of justice for our state.”

While governors appoint justices in most circumstances, they must periodically face voters. Their first election usually comes a year or two after they get on the court and then the seats are up every six years after that.

In November, three justices are on the ballot: Hudson and Associate Justices Anne McKeig and Karl Procaccini.

While other states have experienced more ideologically driven elections, Minnesota has so far escaped that.

Of the three, Procaccini might draw the most spirited challenge because he’s the newest — having been on the court since just last fall and because he was a former Walz office lawyer who helped draft many of the COVID-19 orders. But his campaign account is already brimming with money.

Gaïtas and Hennesy won’t face voters until 2026.