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Rosalie Wahl: Minnesota trailblazer

“She helped cement professional legal values and real experiences into the legal curriculum, here in Minnesota and across the nation.”

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Rosalie Wahl

The story posted in late July by the Associated Press was typically straightforward and brief:

Rosalie Wahl, the first woman to serve on the Minnesota Supreme Court, has died. She was 88. … Wahl was appointed by then-Gov. Rudy Perpich in 1977 and served on the state’s highest court for 17 years. The court created gender-fairness and racial-bias task forces while she served. Wahl put herself through law school at William Mitchell in St. Paul while raising a family of five children.

Of course that only scratches the surface of the trailblazing jurist’s life and accomplishments.

Sara Rosalie Erwin was born in 1924 into a family with two older sisters and, later, a younger brother in Gordon, Kan. Her mother died when she was 3, and she moved in with her grandparents in Birch Creek, Kan.

Lawyer was out of reach

When she was 7, she witnessed her grandfather and younger brother’s deaths in a train accident. According to an article in the William Mitchell alumni publication “Mitchell on Law,” her family believed the train company was to blame but they couldn’t sue because the lawyer required $100 up front, a sum almost no family could afford during the Great Depression. She grew up hearing that the government and legal profession should have done more to help families like hers.

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She and her grandmother moved into an old stone house near the family farm. She lived there, attending school with the children from the few neighboring families, until she was 19. 

In a 2006 interview, Wahl said going to that small school, with no more than a dozen students in all grades, taught her the basic concept of fairness.

“One of the things I learned growing up, and I learned it at school, was you played fair. You were fair. So I think that was a good ground for a judicial career to play fair. You needed everybody to play any game. I mean you couldn’t play softball unless you have everybody in it, whether they were big or little. People were pretty considerate of the young ones and so forth.”

Empathy for the poor

While growing and working on the family farm during the Great Depression, Wahl learned to have empathy for the poor and downtrodden. She would often tag along with her uncles Ellis and Bill while they mended fence and talked about the family’s financial problems.

“They never had a lot of money, but they had land,” she recalled in the 2006 interview. “They were good farmers, but they never had enough to get very far ahead. And very early, I identified with those who were poor.” 

She decided she wanted to be a journalist, so Wahl enrolled in the University of Kansas in Lawrence in the fall of 1942. During her first year in college, her fiancé, Eldon Peck, was injured in an Army Air Corps training accident and died before Wahl could visit him. “It just seemed irrelevant to be going to school,” she said in the interview, “so I went home after the first year, and I taught in Birch Creek School the next year. Teachers were scarce.”

She re-enrolled at the University of Kansas in the following year, but with a new direction. “I decided I wanted to do something that would, in my mind, be more of a help to people. I went into sociology.” She worked with the YWCA in town, eventually becoming the group’s president.

She also helped found Henley House, a residential, inter-racial co-op. She said most people were supportive of the experiment, although the chancellor’s office insisted each student produce a letter from a parent or guardian saying it was OK to live in an inter-racial co-op. 

‘Very broadening years’

“Those years were very broadening years,” Wahl said. “The horizon was pushed out for me. There was a lot of emphasis on justice. That was when I first became aware of injustice. I didn’t think about it much when I was growing up, but that’s when I learned about it and that something could be done about it.”

The soldiers came home in 1945 and many went to college on the GI Bill. She fell in love with Ross Wahl, an Army vet who had fought in the Battle of the Bulge and who was studying electrical engineering. They were married in 1946, and their son Christopher was born in 1947.

In 1948, after Ross Wahl graduated, the family moved to Minnesota to join friends in forming an “intentional community” in Circle Pines. “At that time, there were a lot of movements about cooperation and intentional communities. We thought we could make the world a better place,” she said.

Ross got a job with Unisys, and Sara, Tim and Mark were born while in the Circle Pines community. The four families worked hard, but by 1955 the idea had played out and the Wahls moved to a farmhouse in Lake Elmo. 

Enrolled in law school at 38

In 1962, with four children in school and living on an electrical engineer’s salary, Wahl decided she needed to contribute to the family; she figured it would take additional education to do so. At age 38 she enrolled in the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul – a college that caters to professionals who need to take classes at night. There was one other woman in her class, Ellen Dresselhuis, and one female faculty member, librarian and researcher Carol Floren.

The Wahls’ daughter Jenny was born in 1964. Rosalie Wahl graduated in 1967 and went to work with C. Paul Jones at the newly formed Office of the State Public Defender. Between 1967 and 1977, when she was appointed to the state Supreme Court, she argued well over 100 cases before the Court.

In 1973 the Wahls were divorced. “Ross was in the Battle of the Bulge and it was a terrible, terrible experience,” Rosalie Wahl recalled. “He was one of two people who came out of his company. And it didn’t hit him until years later when he actually, I think it was post-traumatic stress, but it was like down the road when he just kind of fell apart. Life became really difficult. And there wasn’t much help around at that time. He began drinking, which he’d never done. And it just reached the point where …”

William Mitchell College of Law asked her to start a clinical program at the college in 1973. The state Supreme Court had decided that anyone who might go to jail deserves an attorney, including those charged with misdemeanors. Lawyers were already assigned to indigent people charged with felonies, but not to those charged with misdemeanors, “and the body politic wasn’t geared up to start paying the lawyers to do it,” Wahl said. “So it was a perfect opportunity to use the law students. The students could appear in court under the supervision of a licensed attorney and they could represent misdemeanants and they could work with legal aid and work for people who couldn’t afford a lawyer.”

She said it was an exciting time. “It was a wonderful experience for the students. They learned so much. Arid ethics came into play right away. And all of a sudden they realized, ‘you are one of them.’ This client was relying on you. And what happened if he went to jail for 90 days might have been because you didn’t do as good a job as you could have. I never saw people work as hard as these students did. They did memos, they did motions, as well as participate in trying cases.”

Pressure on Perpich

In 1977, the political pressure was on Gov. Rudy Perpich to appoint women to openings in the judicial system, including any openings in the Supreme Court. And in May the opening came. Several groups provided lists of potential Supreme Court justices to Perpich, and Wahl was on all of them. Finally, there were 18 applications. Perpich narrowed the list to seven, then five, then three. Wahl remembers the other two being Roberta Levy and Diana Murphy, and finally just Levy.

Wahl got a call to meet with Perpich. “I went in Gov. Perpich’s office. There was this great impressive reception room there. I had never really met him before. When he stood up, I was amazed at how tall he was. Then he sat down and asked me two questions that he was interested in. He asked me what my position on the death penalty was, and he asked me where I stood on Roe v. Wade. Then he took me into a little conference room off of his office and here were his counsel.”

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Rosalie Wahl Supreme Court campaign button

The next day, Wahl and her daughter Sara drove to St. Cloud for a convention on women’s issues. The event took place in the St. Cloud State University gymnasium. Wahl estimates 4,000 women were packed into the space. Minnesota Secretary of State Joan Growe was chair of the convention. Wahl recalled, “They stopped what they were doing to make this announcement. … The governor was going to appoint a woman to the tax court. He was also going to appoint Esther Tomljanovich to the District Court in Washington County. Then Joan announced that the governor was going to appoint me to the Supreme Court. The auditorium just went wild.”

Wahl enjoyed the collegiality of the Supreme Court, where seniority reigned. For three years she sat at the end of the table in the ninth position, listening, participating and learning.

Tomljanovich later joined Wahl on the Supreme Court. She told Minnesota Public Radio that Perpich knew Wahl’s seat on the court wasn’t secure. Justices must run for election, and it was inevitable she’d face challengers. “That was one of the reasons he chose her is because she would have a really good campaign and a lot of backers who were really passionate about her,” Tomljanovich said. Wahl faced five men in the next election and defeated them all. She served on the court for 17 years until the mandatory retirement age of 70.

A paper written for the William Mitchell College of Law, “Rosalie Wahl’s Vision for Legal Education: Clinics at the Heart,” by professor Ann Juergens notes that Wahl wrote 549 opinions for the court that “are known for their elegant clarity, and for her attention to implementing the will of the legislature, her insistence that the Minnesota courts define state constitutional standards independent of federal standards, and for her sensitivity to the minds and souls of people seeking justice.”

Wahl led the Minnesota Supreme Court’s Task Force for Gender Fairness in the Courts and the Task Force on Racial Bias in the Judicial System. The Star Tribune noted in an editorial that these committees led to wide-ranging changes in statutes, judicial education and court procedures, and mitigated what too often had been a hostile courtroom environment for women and minorities.

Juergens wrote that while Wahl’s work on the state Supreme Court was generous, and her work on gender and race fairness was deep, Wahl’s lasting legacy will be in legal education

“She helped cement professional legal values and real experiences into the legal curriculum, here in Minnesota and across the nation,” Juergens wrote last month in a MinnPost tribute. “Wahl skillfully guided changes in regulations governing legal education during the years that she chaired the American Bar Association’s committee that oversees admission to the bar. She brought real culture change to legal education.” 

Were they able to hear all this, there’s no doubt her relatives in 1930s Birch Creek, Kan., would have been very proud.

Corrections: An earlier version of this story contained biographical errors which were brought to MinnPost’s attention and have been corrected.