Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

From Near to Fair: Minnesota Cases at the U.S. Supreme Court

Railroads, newspapers, airlines, a dairy, and even the State Fair have been embroiled in disputes from Minnesota that have reached the United States Supreme Court. While Minnesotans may differ as to which of these cases have had greatest impact, here are a number that are notable milestones in the history of our state.

The Minnesota Sesquicentennial, which milestone was reached May 11, 2008 and whose celebrations culminate this month, marks an opportune occasion for all sorts of waxing and waning about Minnesota history. For the bench and bar, a review of historical highlights appropriately focuses on significant court decisions that have illumined our path down through the years. Considering the wealth of significant case law over the past 150 years, we have a menu of diverse delicacies to select from in Minnesota legal lore.

One way to pay homage to the state’s 150th birthday is to examine some of the more notable cases from the Minnesota state court system that have been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Here’s a look at 15 noteworthy cases—nine of them reversed and six affirmed—from among the 154 to reach the High Court, selected because they are interesting, important, or both.

Disbarment Decision

Even before it became a state on May 11, 1858, litigation from Minnesota was heard by the Supreme Court. In fact, the first case from Minnesota to reach the High Court arose in territorial days.

In Ex parte Secombe, 60 U.S. 9 (1856), a Minnesota attorney challenged his disbarment by the territorial supreme court for violating a law obligating lawyers “‘to maintain the respect due to courts of justice and judicial officers.’”1 The offense committed by the attorney, who had been practicing in the territory for a little more than three years, was not described in the court proceedings, other than it occurred in “open court” and led to his disbarment without notice. On appeal, the Supreme Court upheld the territorial court’s disbarment ruling.2

The Supreme Court rejected the counselor’s claim that he was not given an opportunity to contest the disbarment, a version of due process existing a decade before the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment came into being. While cautioning against arbitrary and despotic rulings by tribunals against attorneys, the Court upheld the discretion of the territorial court in the proper exercise of a “judicial act … within the scope of its jurisdiction and discretion.”3 The ruling was written by Chief Justice Roger Taney, who only one year later would author the famous Dred Scott decision, Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1856), which also happened to arise in part from Minnesota, where the claimant had, for two years, been enslaved to a military doctor deployed at Fort Snelling.

Railroad Rulings

Railroads were the predominant means for transportation of passengers, freight and commodities and an important factor in development of the country, including Minnesota, for much of the latter part of the 19th century and the earlier part of the ensuing one. Consequently, railroad litigation became a staple of the U.S. Supreme Court. Of the cases reaching the High Court from Minnesota, nearly one-third—49 cases—have been railroad rulings.

The concept of due process of law, not yet developed in the Secombe case, made its mark in a later Minnesota lawsuit. The right of states to regulate shipping rates charged by railroads was a recurring legal issue after the Civil War, reaching its apex in a case from Minnesota, known as the Railroad Rate Case, Chicago, M. & St. P. Ry. Co. v. Minnesota, 134 U.S. 418 (1890).4 Reversing the Minnesota Supreme Court, the High Court invalidated a Minnesota statute on grounds that it violated the Due Process Clause because it deprived the railroad of its right to a judicial investigation “regarding whether the rates are unequal and unreasonable.”5

Another railroad rate-related case of even greater significance, still frequently cited today, also came from Minnesota. Since it was a case that originated in the federal court system, it does not make it to this “Top 15” list. But Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908), still merits mention because of its significance of development in jurisprudence, allowing federal courts to impose equitable relief, but not award damages, against the state or state officials under the 11th Amendment.

A different constitutional issue, the right to a jury trial under the 7th Amendment, arose in another Minnesota railroad case, Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad Co. v. Bombolis, 241 U.S. 211 (1916). The Supreme Court, affirming a ruling of the state supreme court,6 held that an injured railroad worker was not entitled to a unanimous jury verdict in a state civil lawsuit because the 7th Amendment jury guarantee is applicable only to the federal government, not the state.7 The Supreme Court dismissively rejected the argument that certain provisions of the Bill of Rights applied to state actions.8

Media Matters

The refusal of the High Court to apply the constitutional guarantee of a unanimous jury verdict to the states in Bombolis was swept away a few years later when the Court began framing the “selective incorporation” theory, which gave certain constitutional rights against state governmental action. This development was highlighted, ironically, by another Minnesota case, Near v. Minnesota ex rel. Olson, 283 U.S. 697 (1931).

The case stands near the top of nearly all listings of landmark Supreme Court rulings, particularly those under the 1st Amendment, since it established the generally immutable rule against “prior restraint” by the government of offensive expressions. The lawsuit concerned an attempt by Hennepin County Attorney Floyd B. Olson, who later became a popular Depression-era governor, to shut down a scandalous local newspaper that was highly critical of local officials, replete with racial and anti-Semitic overtones. He invoked a state “nuisance” law, empowering authorities to shut-down offensive publications, which both the Hennepin County District Court and Minnesota Supreme Court upheld.9

The United States Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, reversed, holding that the censorial statute “cannot be justified” under the 1st Amendment protection of freedom of expression.10 In doing so, it adopted the principle, rejected in Bombolis but nurtured in ensuing years, that the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment extends certain constitutional rights to the states. The author of the dissent inNear, incidentally, was Justice Pierce Butler, Minnesota’s first High Court jurist.

But Near was not the only significant 1st Amendment case from the Minnesota state court system decided by the nation’s highest tribunal. A couple of others also involved the media, namely newspapers. In Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Minnesota Commissioner of Revenue, 460 U.S. 575 (1983), the Court considered a special “use” tax imposed by the state legislature on the purchase of ink by the newspapers. The law was structured in such a way that it affected only the largest newspaper in the state, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and seemed to be animated by displeasure in legislative corridors with the newspaper’s reportage of political and social issues at the time.

As in the Near case, the measure was upheld by the state supreme court.11 But also, as in Near, the Supreme Court reversed. It reasoned, in a decision written by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, that the Minnesota tax constituted an infringement of the 1st Amendment because it was an attempt to retaliate against the newspaper for its expressing its views, and such “differential treatment … suggests that the goal of the regulation is not unrelated to suppression of expression.”12 The decision drew a dissent from Justice William Rehnquist, later the chief justice, who pointed out that, under the measure, the newspaper actually paid less than it would have had it been subjected to Minnesota’s normal sales tax for its ink purchases.13

The same newspaper, along with the state’s second largest one, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, encountered a less favorable tribunal a decade later. They had challenged the $700,000 jury verdict handed down against them in Hennepin County District Court for revealing the identity of a confidential news source. The source had sued for breach of contract and fraud after he had been promised anonymity by the reporters for the two newspapers and then was named in articles in the two publications. In Cohen v. Cowles Media Co., 501 U.S. 663 (1991), the Court held that the 1st Amendment did not immunize the media from laws of “general applicability.” The jury’s findings of breach of contract and fraud did not offend the 1st Amendment, and the case was remanded to the state supreme court, which had previously reversed the judgment in favor of the plaintiff.14 On remand, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld a portion of the award, $200,000, on promissory estoppel grounds, “essentially a variation of contract theory.”15

Expression Enigmas

Other 1st Amendment rights of freedom of expression and association were addressed in two Minnesota cases.

In Heffron v. International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Inc., 452 U.S. 640 (1981), the Court upheld the regulation of the government agency that owns and operates the State Fair barring the sale or distribution of religious literature and materials other than at fixed locations on the fairgrounds. The measure was challenged by a religious organization claiming the 1st Amendment right to pass out literature and solicit funds while wandering through the facility. The state supreme court ruled for the religious organization,16 but the Supreme Court unanimously reversed, holding that the restrictions did not offend the 1st Amendment rights of the group or others.17

In a highly-fractured ruling 12 years later, the Court struck down the juvenile delinquency adjudication of a youth for violating a St. Paul “hate crime” ordinance by participating in a cross-burning at the home of an African-American family in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377 (1992). The Court overturned the ordinance, which had been upheld by the state supreme court, despite a vigorous 1st Amendment challenge.18 A plurality of the High Court deemed the statute constitutionally defective because it was predominantly “content-based” and reflected “viewpoint discrimination” as it was directed at a particular type of expressive conduct.

Commercial Concerns

Important business concerns have been addressed in a number of Minnesota commercial cases. The provision in Article I §10 of the Constitution barring states from impairing contractual rights did not proscribe a Minnesota law imposing a temporary moratorium on mortgage foreclosures during the Depression in Home Building & Loan Ass’n. v. Blaisdell, 290 U.S. 398 (1934). The High Court affirmed a ruling of the state supreme court,19 upholding the measure as a valid expression of a state legislature’s powers during an “emergency.” But the vote, like others of its era, was a narrow one, 5-4, with Justice Butler of Minnesota again in dissent.

The state’s right to tax a multistate corporation on personal property located within the state was upheld by the High Court in Northwest Airlines v. Minnesota, 322 U.S. 292 (1944). The case questioned whether the state taxation on Northwest Airlines’ entire fleet of airplanes, all headquartered in Minnesota but operating across state lines, violated the Commerce Clause in Article I, §8. The state supreme court said it did not20 and the justices in Washington, D.C. affirmed, noting that because the fleet was not taxed elsewhere, there would be no threat of double taxation. The failure to impose a tax in Minnesota would, in the absence of taxation elsewhere, “free such floating property from taxation everywhere.”21 The Court observed that “each new means of interstate transportation and communication had engendered controversy regarding taxation,”22 an observation that still strikes home as technological advances continue to raise thorny issues of taxation in the high-tech world in the new millennium.

The Court addressed another taxing dilemma in Northwestern States Portland Cement Co. v. Minnesota, 358 U.S. 450 (1959). The issue was whether Minnesota could impose an income tax on foreign corporations based on the portion of the net corporate income that was attributable to activities within Minnesota. After the state supreme court agreed,23 the High Court upheld the tax on grounds that the business was not bearing more than its fair share of the tax burden because the measure was limited to taxing the net profits earned within the taxing jurisdiction, which entailed a “valid ‘constitutional channel.’”24

Similarly, in Minnesota v. Clover Leaf Creamery Co., 449 U.S. 456 (1981), the Supreme Court held a Minnesota statute banning plastic milk cartons did not run afoul of the Commerce Clause. After the state supreme court invalidated the law25 the High Court reversed, holding that the measure did not discriminate against interstate commerce. It reasoned that “[a] nondiscriminatory regulation serving substantial state purposes is not invalid simply because it causes some businesses to shift from a predominantly out-of-state industry to a predominantly in-state industry.”26

Criminal Case

The large body of criminal cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court includes several notable ones from Minnesota.

In Minnesota v. Murphy, 465 U.S. 420 (1984), the High Court upheld a murder conviction predicated upon an admission by a participant made during a group therapy session, which was then repeated to a probationary officer. It reversed a ruling of the state supreme court27 on grounds that the disclosure to the probation officer was not a compelled incrimination and the probationer did not assert his 5th Amendment privilege.28

The most recent Minnesota criminal case decided by the High Court arose during its current term. Danforth v. Minnesota, 128 S.Ct. 1029 (2008), underscored the concept of Federalism, an age-old doctrine dating back to the beginning of the Republic. The case concerned the standard for retroactive application of constitutional decisions to state court criminal convictions. The state supreme court ruled that based on existing federal law, namely, the establishment of a more expansive doctrine under the Confrontation Clause of the 6th Amendment in Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004), such rulings did not apply retroactively to a Minnesota sex offender whose conviction became final before the Supreme Court ruling.29

But the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7-2 ruling, reversed. In a new twist on Federalism, it held that state courts are empowered to make High Court rulings retroactive, even if the federal courts do not, because federal judges have no “supervisory authority over the work of state judges.”30 Responding to the two dissenters, the majority ruling noted that lack of uniformity “is a necessary consequence of a federalist system of government.”31

The Danforth ruling brings 150-plus years of Minnesota case law full circle. It constitutes a triumph for “state rights” 150 years after the admission of Minnesota as a state to a Union that was about to be torn apart over that principle juxtaposed with the abomination of slavery.

These Minnesota cases have stirred numerous citations and other legal progeny over the years. The RAV case is the most notable, having been cited in nearly 1,900 cases and 1,371 law review articles. Nor is Minnesota’s influence on our nation’s jurisprudence limited to these 15 cases. They are but a few selected to illustrate the long and lasting role that this state has played in High Court adjudication from its infancy to its dotage on its 150th birthday. s

1 Ex Parte Secombe, 60 U.S. 9, 14 (1856).

2 Id. at 16.

3 Id. at 15.

Chicago, M & St. P. Ry. Co. v. Minnesota, 134 U.S. 418 (1890), reversing 38 Minn. 281, 37 N.W. 782 (Minn. 1888).

5 134 U.S. at 456-57.

6 128 Minn. 112, 150 N.W. 385 (Minn. 1914).

7 251 U.S. 221-23.


9 179 Minn. 40, 228 N.W. 326 (Minn. 1929).

10 Near v. Minnesota ex rel. Olson, 283 U.S. 697, 721 (1931).

11 314 N.W.2d 201 (Minn. 1981).

12 Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Minnesota Commissioner of Revenue, 460 U.S. 575, 585 (1983).

13 Id. at 598.

14 457 N.W.2d 199 (Minn. 1990).

15 479 N.W.2d 387 (Minn. 1992).

16 299 N.W.2d 79 (Minn. 1980).

17 Heffron v. International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Inc., 452 U.S. 640, 654 (1981).

18 464 N.W.2d 507 (Minn. 1991).

19 189 Minn. 448, 249 N.W. 893 (Minn. 1933).

20 213 Minn. 295, 7 N.W. 691 (Minn. 1942).

21 Northwest Airlines v. Minnesota, 322 U.S. 292, 300 (1944).

22 Id. at 300-01.

23 250 Minn. 32, 84 N.W.2d 373 (Minn. 1957).

24 Northwestern States Portland Cement Co. v. Minnesota, 358 U.S. 450, 464 (1959).

25 289 N.W.2d 79 (Minn. 1979).

26 Minnesota v. Clover Leaf Creamery Co., 449 U.S. 456, 474 (1981).

27 324 N.W.2d 340 (Minn. 1982).

28 Minnesota v. Murphy, 465 U.S. 420, 440 (1984).

29 718 N.W.2d 451 (Minn. 2006).

30 Danforth v. Minnesota, 128 S.Ct. 1029, 1046 (2008).

31 Id. at 1047.

Honorable Mention

While the number 15 has a certain resonance with 150 years of statehood, it carries no innate significance in denoting the number of Minnesota cases that have had significant impact on development of the law of the United States. Here are 15 additional significant or scintillating cases from the Minnesota state court system that were decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

  • Buck v. Colbath, 70 U.S. 334 (1865): State court proceedings against federal officials for wrongful attachment of property were valid and did not “interfere” with use of federal government.
  • St. Paul Water Co. v. Ware, 83 U.S. 566 (1872): Contractor liable for negligence causing injury to man driving horse and wagon and not immunized from liability by subcontracting work.
  • Denny v. Bennett, 128 U.S. 489 (1888): Minnesota statute allowing debtor whose property was seized to assign property for equal benefit of all creditors in order to avoid attachment is valid and not violative of the “impairment” provision of Constitution.
  • Minnesota v. Barber, 136 U.S. 313 (1890): Minnesota statute requiring any meat products sold for consumption in Minnesota must be inspected in state within 24 hours of slaughter held discriminatory in favor of “products and business of Minnesota” and unduly abridging Commerce Clause.
  • LeRoy Fibre Co. v. Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Co., 232 U.S. 340 (1914): Contributory negligence inapplicable to fire caused by sparks from passing train igniting hay stored by farm owner adjacent to railroad tracks.
  • Gilbert v. Minnesota, 254 U.S. 325 (1920): Conviction of anti-war speaker during World War I not violative of 1st Amendment because statements discourage “a feeling of patriotism” to the nation.
  • Allied Structural Steel Co. v. Spannaus, 438 U.S. 234 (1978): State police power to regulate benefits in Private Pension Benefits Protection Act was proscribed by Contracts Clause because act impaired right to contract in area not before occupied by state law.
  • Marine Engineers Beneficial Ass’n. v. Interlake Steamship. Co., 370 U.S. 173 (1962): A state court is preempted from resolving labor union picketing issue, which is subject to determination by the National Labor Relations Board.
  • Bryan v. Itasca County, Minnesota, 426 U.S. 373 (1976): Minnesota tax on mobile homes owned by Native Americans living on reservation land invalid because the property is held in trust by the federal government.
  • Mueller v. Allen, 463 U.S. 388 (1983): Minnesota parochial-aid law allowing tax deductions for tuition and transportation for private and secondary school students not violative of Establishment Clause of 1st Amendment.
  • Minnesota State Board for Community Colleges v. Knight, 465 U.S. 271 (1984): Provision of State Public Employment Labor Relations Act precluding collective bargaining with nonunion teachers not proscribed by 1st Amendment or equal protection.
  • Minnesota v. Carter, 525 U.S. 83 (1998): No legitimate expectation of privacy for person temporarily in apartment to package cocaine, making search justified.
  • Chase Securities Corp. v. Donaldson, 325 U.S. 304 (1945): Revision of state Blue Sky Law extending statute of limitations allowing plaintiff to bring claim, enacted after state supreme court ruled without prejudice claim was barred, was applicable to allow claim and was not unlawful taking by state.
  • Minnesota ex rel. Pearson v. Probate Court of Ramsey County, 309 U.S. 270 (1940): State supreme court’s interpretation of statute, not found to be vague, was binding on U.S. Supreme Court in determining whether relator was “psychopathic personality.”
  • Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co. v. Minnesota, 280 U.S. 204 (1930): State was without jurisdiction to tax public securities owned by nonresident decedent and kept in state of his domicile.

MARSHALL H. TANICK and PHILLIP J. TROBAUGH are attorneys with the law firm of Mansfield, Tanick & Cohen, P.A., with offices in Minneapolis, St. Paul, St. Louis Park, and Bemidji. The authors wish to thank Patrick Donaldson, a law clerk with the firm, for his assistance in this article.

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