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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Anderson was a captain with a mighty heart

When former Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz retired, the present Chief Justice, Russell Anderson, called her “the captain with the mighty heart.” The phrase could with equal accuracy be applied to Anderson himself. Anderson announced his retirement from the bench yesterday and it is a loss to the state. It’s a loss not only because it’s the fourth vacancy on the court in four years, but also because Anderson packed a lot of leadership into two years as chief.

Only hours after Anderson took the oath in January 2006 the U.S. Supreme Court declined review in Republican Party v. White, leaving the system of electing judges in flux, where it remains. Anderson immediately announced that the state of Minnesota would begin a conversation about how to elect judges post-White, and that conversation is continuing at the Legislature where a constitutional amendment is under consideration. The legislation may not pass this session, and reasonable minds differ about what elections should look like in the future, but there certainly has been a conversation. Any interested citizen has had an opportunity to be heard.

Anderson and the rest of the court also got pummeled shortly into his term with ethics charges that proved baseless after an investigation by the Board on Judicial Standards. Former Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson said in public that Anderson lied about allegations that the members of the court discussed same-sex marriage with him. He and Justice G. Barry Anderson were also accused of campaign funding violations by attending a judicial retreat, and that charge was also dismissed by the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.

To the public Anderson appeared to be a fortress during these storms, which also occurred at the time when the entire court system was moving to a unified state-wide administration under a Judicial Council--a system that Anderson helped to shape and deliver. Regardless of the stress to employees occasioned by that change, that transition has appeared to the community to be virtually seamless.

Anderson once told me he was surprised to be named chief. Whether or not it was a surprise appointment to the rest of the state, it was a fortunate one.

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