An interview with Justice Anne McKeig of the Minnesota Supreme
Justice Anne McKeig joined the Minnesota Supreme Court as an associate justice on September 1, 2016. A descendant of the White Earth Nation, Justice McKeig is the first American Indian to sit on the state’s highest court. Her appointment also created a women’s majority on the court. Justice McKeig serves on numerous committees and boards related to many issues, including child protection, domestic violence, and Native American Indian matters. Prior to joining the Supreme Court, Justice McKeig served as a Hennepin County District Court judge, presiding in Family Court. Before joining the bench, Justice McKeig worked for 16 years as an assistant Hennepin County attorney working on child protection and adoption matters.
Justice McKeig is a native of northern Minnesota, where she grew up on the Leech Lake reservation. She is married and a proud mother of five children. Justice McKeig’s passion for children, amazing work ethic, and sense of humor are all immediately apparent upon meeting her. Justice McKeig and I recently discussed her appointment to the Supreme Court and her strategies for staying grounded.
Jon Schmidt: You started working at a young age at a supper club and, it seems, have not stopped working ever since. To what (or to whom) do you attribute your hard work ethic? How do those work experiences influence your current job?
Justice Anne McKeig: My work ethic definitely came from my parents. I was lucky to have both a mom and a dad that believed in hard work, and they passed that strong work ethic onto my brothers and me. My dad was a 49er and worked hard physical labor. I can remember him coming home being completely exhausted, but after a few minutes [he] could find the energy to play with us kids. My mom also worked since she was very young. She was determined to go to college—St. Catherine’s University in
St. Paul—and worked several jobs, saving all of her money with the single focus of attending St. Kates. We also had a lot of chores to do around the house — including three gardens that we all worked together as a family to maintain.
Schmidt: You promised never to “forget who I am or where I came from.” As the first Native American woman appointed to any state’s highest court, what does your appointment mean to you, your community, and the larger Native American community throughout the country?
McKeig: It is an honor and privilege that comes with responsibility. It also comes with an important understanding that without the work of Judge Robert Blaeser and many others like him, I would not have even dared to apply for such a prestigious position. I hope that it will be encouragement for others across the country to apply for such positions and incentive for our youth to dream big.
I think it is about a having a voice and equal representation. There has been a lot of work in this country, in Minnesota in particular, to build a bridge between my community and the court system, and I am hoping my appointment will be another link in that bridge. When you look at statistics, you cannot help but notice that Native Americans are the most overrepresented in the criminal justice system and in child protection. Native women experience the highest rate of domestic violence. Even with the best of intentions, I think it is a challenge to address and understand the issues that are unique to the Native community without coming from the community.
I recall a time recently where I went out to the Native community to discuss how our courts were responding to the needs of victims of domestic violence. It was a group of Native women. At first they were extremely quiet and reserved, and we were having difficulties making a connection. So I told them about myself. After that, the walls came crumbling down and an open line of valuable communication was established. For some, that may seem like a very small victory, but it is hard to put into words what a huge success that conversation was. We (the court system) learned some very valuable information, and community members felt like they had a voice in the court system, by talking to someone that they could trust because I was someone they could connect with. That has happened to me throughout my career as a county attorney and as a judge. The power and importance of that cannot be overstated.
Schmidt: You also promised “never take myself too seriously[.]” How do you keep yourself grounded?
McKeig: I go home. That is the great thing about my family. I am just mom. When I get home, it is all about dinner, soccer, issues with friends, and complaints about homework. It is all about their needs. I can remember waiting to receive a call to find out if I had been appointed to the 4th judicial district as a district court judge. I was at conferences with my son, who was eight years old at the time, and my cell phone rings and it is the governor. We speak, I hang up, and I tell my son, “Caleb, guess what? Momma is going to be a judge!” And he says, “That’s nice momma, can I please get the Adrian Peterson poster because my conferences were good?” Talk about bursting my bubble, but I am so glad that my family and friends just treat me like Anne. It is the way it should be.
Schmidt: If you were not a justice or a lawyer, what job do you think you would have?
McKeig: I wanted to be a country music singer. Growing up I watched Hee Haw and The Lawrence Welk Show with my dad. We only had two channels and never spent much time watching television, but when we did, many of the shows were musical. My dad was a big country music fan, and I also fell in love with country music. I sang in high school and had a dream of heading to Nashville and making it onto the Grand ‘Ol Opry. I loved entertaining and loved singing. I even sang in some competitions when I was in high school, and I would sit for hours in my room in the evening practicing my guitar and writing songs. My mom was smart, though—she never told me I couldn’t be a singer. She just told me to have a backup plan so that I should attend college first and then make my way to Nashville. Of course, I went on to attend St. Catherine’s University, then law school, and the rest is history.
Schmidt: What is something about yourself that the readers would not be able to find with a Google search?
McKeig: I really like this question but I have a hard time answering it. I feel like I am such an open book that most people are not surprised by much. However, I have a profound fear of heights. I always feel like I am going to fall. I was in Mexico with my girlfriends, and this guy was walking around trying to get people to go parasailing. He approached our table and for some unknown, not-well-thought-out reason, my girlfriend and I (both terrified of heights) said we would do it if the other one would do it. So it was on! Next thing you know, we’re on a jet ski heading to a boat where we were hooked up and hoisted into the air. My girlfriend went first, and I still remember the look of sheer terror on her face when she came back down. That really helped me, since I was next up. They hoist me up, and off I go — released into the sky. It was so quiet… almost too quiet. I could hear the rope as it twisted and I thought what a fool I was — I have five kids and I’m doing this?!?! It only took 20 minutes, but it was the longest 20 minutes ever.
Schmidt: If you could change three things in the judicial system, what would they be?
McKeig: First, I would make the child protection system our number one priority in this state. The system is overburdened, and thus less effective than it could be. I would like to see judges committed to the work of child protection by having specialized training, staying for longer terms in Juvenile Court, establishing better communication with all of our communities, and making lost children and families that are broken a real priority.
We could make a difference across the entire criminal justice system if we could just get a better handle on the child protection system. It is such hard, challenging, sad, gut-wrenching work, but for me it is the most important work that our system does. If we could really put the time, money, and effort into real change, we could make a positive impact on our entire criminal justice system. But we cannot expect our district court judges, county attorneys, public defenders, guardians ad litem, social workers, and other justice partners to be able to accomplish real substantive change unless they are given all the tools and resources necessary to make those changes. There also has to be a clear and well-thought-out road map for that change, and the children’s best interests have to be the priority. We have to involve our communities. It is too big and serious of a problem to leave to a few dedicated people.
Second, we have to address the case loads of our district court judges. The numbers do not show the amount of work done by district court judges. The cases are more complex and take more time, and yet there is no time. We cannot continue to expect high caliber, well-written, thoughtful decisions that have to be made with minimal information at the speed of light. We will lose good people if that does not change.
Third, we have to continue to address the needs of self-represented litigants. The numbers are rising, and due to economic reasons many people are deciding to represent themselves in complicated, life-altering cases. It is extremely difficult to get quality information and evidence for the courts to make decisions when litigants have to represent themselves and they do not understand how to navigate a complex system. It places a higher burden on the courts to find a meaningful, effective, and ethical way to gather enough information to make an informed decision. That is challenging given the current caseloads.
Schmidt: Have you had cases—either as a judge or an advocate—that have really stuck with you over the years? What were those cases and why did they have such an effect on you?
McKeig: It is for sure the cases I handled as an assistant Hennepin County attorney in the child protection division. It changes you as a person, and certainly as a parent. I tell my kids all the time that they will never have a “normal” mother because I see the dangers everywhere. It is hard to comprehend the terrible things some parents do to their children. I have always felt responsible for all of the children that were on my caseload. I wanted the system to respond as though they were our children and that felt like an uphill battle for multiple reasons. Also, just the profound sadness of parents losing their children. It was a rare occasion where I really thought a parent did not love their child. More often, they were just incapable of making the changes to be a parent, even though they loved their children as a result of their own childhood.
As a judge, it is a requirement that we visit a prison every few years. I remember that I went to Oak Park Heights, and on a bulletin board were photos of the inmates and where they were housed. I noticed immediately a picture of a young man that I had removed as a young boy from his parents as a result of severe domestic violence, drug and alcohol addiction, and profound neglect. He was removed at a young age and placed with an older sibling, but he graduated from the child protection system, then to the juvenile delinquency system, and then to adult criminal behavior. He fathered two children, his rights were terminated, and now he is serving a life sentence for murder. I wish his story were unique… but it isn’t. That sticks with you, and I cannot help feeling partially responsible for where he is today.
Schmidt: What has surprised you most in your first few months on the Supreme Court? Similarly, what do you miss about being a judge on the district court?
McKeig: I miss the hustle and bustle of the district court. Many describe the district court as an “emergency room,” and I think that is a perfect analogy. I also miss the camaraderie that goes along with the crushing workload and the weighty decisions that have to be made with lightning speed. I also like the direct interaction with people, hoping that I have had a positive influence on those that have come before me.
I think the amount of work the Supreme Court does is highly underestimated. The complexity and volume of the reading is tremendous; the decision writing is challenging and time-consuming. But the opportunity to learn is tremendous, and I have enjoyed it all. I am very grateful.
Schmidt: With everything you have going on in your life and work, what do you like to do to relax? What do you do to turn your mind off?
McKeig: I have a really hard time turning my mind off. It feels like it is always on 100 percent of the time. I just really try to change the focus of it. I do like to travel—specifically to Mexico—with my friends and family. I love spending time with my kids, although I cannot say that is completely relaxing…. I always say I leave one job and head home to the second. I think I am most relaxed when I go home to Federal Dam. It is so peaceful and quiet and so easy to just turn off all the noise. My mom lives down a dirt road, and I love going for a run out across the bog—just take in the view and the silence. It is also the place where I feel the most connected to my dad. He loved his home, and I feel his presence there.
Schmidt: When you were first appointed to the Minnesota Supreme Court, who besides your immediate family were you most excited to tell the great news?
McKeig: I could not wait to tell Judge Robert Blaeser, because I knew he would be so incredibly proud and happy for our community. He has worked tirelessly for so many years giving of himself to reach this moment. It should have been him. He would have been the perfect Supreme Court justice. But, since it couldn’t be him, I knew he would be thrilled for me, and I hoped it would give him a sense of accomplishment for all his efforts. It is almost impossible to describe the amount of blood, sweat, and tears that have been put in by the founding members of the Minnesota American Indian Bar Association, who had a vision that things, like my appointment to the Supreme Court, could happen. It took hard work to establish a strong, supportive American Indian legal community. Without them and their efforts, I am confident I would not be at the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Schmidt: Minnesota Supreme Court justices have a lot of responsibilities beyond granting review of cases, oral arguments, and writing decisions. Can you describe those lesser known (yet very important) aspects of the job?
McKeig: I’m the official Court liaison to the ADR Ethics Board and to the Civil Commitment and No-Fault Arbitration Committees. But I think one of the most important, and unknown, things we do is community outreach by appearing at non-court events. I have spoken to elementary classes, high school classes, commencement ceremonies—the requests for public appearances are frequent—and I always try my hardest to fit as many of these requests into my schedule as I can. I enjoy the speeches, but in particular I love visiting with the students afterward. It’s important to give young people a connection to our state’s highest court. It is a rare opportunity to share information with the community at large—and yet some of the most important work we do.
JON SCHMIDT is a shareholder at Briggs and Morgan, PA, where he focuses on an appellate practice, commercial and transportation litigation. He lives in St. Paul with his wife (Judge Sara R. Grewing) and their two kids.
‘This is our court’
Remarks of President Robin M. Wolpert on behalf of the MSBA at the investiture of Justice Anne McKeig, September 15, 2016.
I am honored and delighted to be here, on behalf of the state bar and its 15,000 members, to offer warm and enthusiastic congratulations to Justice McKeig, the first Native American to serve on our Supreme Court and perhaps the first native person to hold statewide constitutional office in Minnesota’s history.
On behalf of the state bar, I also offer congratulations to our Supreme Court, Governor Dayton, our Commission on Judicial Selection, our judiciary, and members of the legal profession. This is because today’s momentous occasion is part of a greater narrative regarding the diversification of the legal profession and the judiciary in Minnesota.
Minnesota has led the nation in its efforts to diversify its highest court—and this effort has been the result of a long-term partnership between the bench, the state bar, and our political leaders from both sides of the aisle. In 1991, our Supreme Court became the first in the nation to have a majority of women justices. We achieve that status again today, with the investiture of Justice McKeig.
We have had two remarkable women serving as chief justice of our court—Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz and, currently, Chief Justice Lorie Gildea; three extraordinary African American members of our court—Justice Alan Page, Justice Mimi Wright, and now, Justice Natalie Hudson; and one exceptional jurist, Justice Margaret Chutich, who is the first openly gay person to serve on our highest court. Now today, we have our first Native American on our court. So, to people inside and outside the state of Minnesota, I say, look at this court. This is our court. It speaks volumes about the state of the rule of law in Minnesota.
Our effort to break barriers and diversify our bench and bar has been a longstanding commitment of the MSBA and is a continuing commitment. And here’s why it is so important: Public trust and confidence in the judiciary is essential to the rule of law. If the bench does not reflect the society it serves, it creates the reality or perception that justice is not the same for everyone. How many of you in this room have had conversations with clients who have said, “I have no chance in court, they will never believe me or understand me, they have it out for people like me”? How many of you have taken the opportunity to explain how our justice system works and to dispel these fears and perceptions? Every day we have this chance to build trust and confidence in our judiciary. These perceptions hurt our profession, and they undermine the power of the judiciary.
In Federalist 78, Alexander Hamilton said: “The judiciary, from the nature of its functions, will always be the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution; because it will be least in a capacity to annoy or injure them… The judiciary, on the contrary, has no influence over either the sword or the purse; no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society; and can take no active resolution whatever… It may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments.”
What Hamilton is saying is that courts lack implementation powers. The court can do no more than to say something—the effect depends on others. The judiciary’s power and legitimacy comes from and depends on the support of the public and the other branches of government. This is why our commitment to diversification of the bench and bar must be front and center for the future—because it maintains and promotes public trust and confidence in the courts. And that, in turn, shapes the nature and scope of judicial power and the rule of law.
Demographers tell us that by 2050, we will be a majority-minority nation. Justice McKeig’s appointment today is momentous precisely because it gives our judiciary the opportunity to expand its efforts to build trust and confidence with more constituencies and for her personally to serve as a model for those in the profession who can only be inspired by her life story and tremendous accomplishments.
So, on behalf of the state bar, I say, let’s celebrate today and not forget that the future we are building is a mountain with no top, with continuing opportunities and obligations for our lawyers to build support for the rule of law, and to build trust and confidence in our great Minnesota judiciary.