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The court heads north: Minnesota Supreme Court – and its first American Indian justice – visit Red Lake

RED LAKE -- The gym quieted when Anne McKeig spoke. An associate justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court who grew up in Federal Dam and went on to be the state's -- and almost certainly the nation's -- first American Indian supreme court judge, sh...

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Anne McKeig, Associate Justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court, speaks to Red Lake students on Friday. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)

RED LAKE -- The gym quieted when Anne McKeig spoke.

An associate justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court who grew up in Federal Dam and went on to be the state’s -- and almost certainly the nation’s -- first American Indian supreme court judge, she admonished the Red Lake students who chatted among themselves while Chief Justice Lorie Gildea told them about the state’s pardon board.

“We have guests here, and as Native people we don't mistreat our guests like that,” McKeig said. “So I want you guys to be quiet and respectful… This is a rare opportunity. This is the first time in the history of the supreme court that they have come this far north, so I want you guys to show proper respect like we do. Right? That's what we do as Indian people.”

McKeig, Gildea, the rest of the Minnesota Supreme Court, Red Lake Chief Judge Mary Ringhand, and Judge Lenny Fineday, a Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe member, headed to Red Lake High School last Friday to talk to students there at a special addendum to one of the court’s twice-yearly visits to schools. It was the first time the court had visited a tribal nation, McKeig said.

On a dais in the gym, some of the state’s highest-placed legal minds fielded lighthearted questions about their pets, whether they watch the TV show “Suits,” and whether they’d ever want to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. But they also tackled weightier student questions about legalizing marijuana, the state supreme court’s power over Red Lake, and how to improve civics education.

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Earlier that morning, McKeig and Fineday spoke with rotating groups of students from Red Lake, Walker, and beyond about their lives and careers. Fineday remembered thinking his law career was a “pipe dream” -- McKeig nodded -- and how often he nearly packed up his Milwaukee apartment and quit law school altogether. He pumped up tribal colleges and told students not to look down on “small beginnings.”

McKeig remembered watching the swearing-in ceremony for Judge Robert Blaeser, a White Earth Nation member and the first American Indian judge in the metro area. She told students it was the first time she considered that she herself could become a judge. Blaeser became a mentor and encouraged McKeig to apply for the supreme court vacancy.

“In the United States we have one Native American judge on the federal court system -- one, in all the United States. Does that seem reasonable? No. Do you think that Native American people are going to be properly represented if we only have one Native American judge in the federal court system?” she asked a roomful of students. “The Native American professional community is strong. We are here to support everything that you do because we're building a road for you. And somebody has built the beginnings of that road for us. So we're like just another step in that road, and then you guys are going to come back and follow and keep building that road for those who come after you, but you have to do your job, which is you guys gotta go to school, and you gotta do well in school. You gotta take school important. Because even if you don’t like it, it's a pathway to freedom. Freedom of choice. What it is that you want to do.”

Fineday said competing for his high school mock trial team nudged him toward his legal career. McKeig knew she wanted to be a lawyer from an early age, and pointed to Blaeser as an inspiration.

Their Friday visit was designed to show students the value of education and to build a metaphorical bridge between state judicial systems and tribes.

“Sovereignty, I think, is the big issue and the fact that there's two systems,” Fineday said. “A lot of time there's two education systems and there's definitely two justice systems. And so what can we be doing to be bridging the gap between those two and creating chances for dialogue and understanding?”

“So that nobody falls in between,” McKeig added, noting that Chief Justice Gildea sat next to Chief Judge Ringhand.

The day before their Red Lake visit, McKeig and her fellow Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments in a high school auditorium in Thief River Falls.

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Occasional sessions in schools outside the court’s St. Paul chambers are designed to teach students about the state court system and build public trust in the judiciary, court staff said, and they chose a case that could help define what a “significant romantic or sexual relationship” is under state law, a topic court staff thought might be more engaging for students than some of the drier fare the court often hears.

The Minnesota Judicial Branch is made up of 10 judicial districts with 294 district court judgeships, 19 Court of Appeals judges, and seven Supreme Court justices. The Judicial Branch is governed by the Judicial Council, which is chaired by Gildea. In 2017, there were nearly 1.3 million cases filed in district courts in Minnesota.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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