McKeig Brings Different Background To Minnesota High Court

Anne McKeig becomes the first American Indian on the Minnesota Supreme Court, bringing a different background than other justices.

“I grew up in rural Minnesota in challenging circumstances surrounded by poverty,” McKeig wrote to Gov. Mark Dayton before he interviewed her, and two others, for the job. “The lessons I learned as a young woman from Federal Dam, Minn., planted in me a strong desire to make a difference for my community. My passion for public service comes from … seeing the enormous needs of my community.”

In a tear-filled speech after Dayton announced her appointment Tuesday, the 49-year-old justice-to-be said: “Today is a historic day, not only for myself and for my family, but for all native persons.”

McKeig has been a Hennepin County district court judge as well as presiding family court judge. She will take a high court seat that opens on Aug. 31.

She has dealt with many American Indian issues, particularly child welfare.

A White Earth Nation descendant from northwestern Minnesota, McKeig was raised in Federal Dam, a small community southeast of Bemidji.

She described her hometown of Federal Dam as “population 110, two bars, two stop signs, a lot of fishermen.”

McKeig said she hopes that people in “the Federal Dams” of Minnesota realize that with her appointment “in Minnesota the Supreme Court and all courts give access to everyone.”

Dayton admitted he had to look on a map to find Federal Dam.

McKeig said Robert Blaeser, now chief White Earth tribal judge, was her mentor.  Blaeser, a Concordia College, Moorhead, graduate was the first American Indian state district court judge in the Twin Cities when appointed in 1995.

Seeing him reach the court inspired her, McKeig said, her eyes filled with tears. He was in the audience when Dayton announced her appointment and was one of many in the room she hugged.

“It is people like him and his wife who have led the way that have allowed for others like me to dare to dream,” McKeig said.

While diversity is important on the court, Dayton said, “I wanted somebody who would be an outstanding justice.”

“It can’t help but inform,” McKeig said when asked what her background would bring to her high court decisions. “It certainly does influence.”

She joins a fellow northern Minnesota native, Chief Justice Lori Gildea, on the court. She came from Plummer, in the northwest.

Her mother, Cecelia McKeig, who attended the announcement, was a Fulbright scholar raised in Bemidji and her father, Monte McKeig, was “the blue collar, union man,” she said. He died of diabetes at age 61.

McKeig graduated from the College of St. Catherine and received her law degree from Hamline University, both in St. Paul. She was an assistant Hennepin County attorney before then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty named her a judge in 2008.

Her new appointment means there will be four women and three men on the high court. And Dayton has appointed four of the seven members, with the remaining three left from Pawlenty’s time in office.

The only other time women outnumbered men on the Minnesota Supreme Court was as Gov. Rudy Perpich left office in 1991.

McKeig will fill an opening left when Justice Christopher Dietzen retires at the end of next month and she will stand for election in two years.

Dietzen’s retirement continues a tradition of Minnesota judges and justices leaving office before their terms expire, allowing the governor to appoint a successor. In most cases, judges have little trouble keeping their offices in public elections.

Dayton interviewed three candidates his judicial selection commission suggested.

“We had three supremely qualified candidates,” the governor said.

McKeig was one of two northern Minnesotans Dayton interviewed. Also on the short list was St. Louis County District Judge James Florey.

Appeals Court Judge Edward Cleary was the third person Dayton considered.