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What would a U.S. Supreme Court look like with Justice Wilhelmina Wright on the bench?

David Lillehaug, a retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice who served with Wright, said that Wright is the most qualified candidate, full stop.

U.S. District Court Judge Wilhelmina “Mimi” Wright
Minnesota U.S. District Court Judge Wilhelmina “Mimi” Wright is the only jurist in Minnesota’s history to have served in the state district court, appellate court and state Supreme Court.
U.S. District Court, District of Minnesota/Handout via REUTERS

When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer announced his plans to retire last month, many people turned their attention to President Joe Biden, who made a campaign promise that if given the opportunity to appoint a new justice, he would make his appointee a Black woman. 

Biden’s shortlist of candidates includes Minnesota U.S. District Court Judge Wilhelmina “Mimi” Wright, the only jurist in Minnesota’s history to have served in the state district court, appellate court and state Supreme Court. Former President Barack Obama nominated her to the U.S. District Court for Minnesota, where she has served since 2016. Her name also surfaced on a short list of suggestions from Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), who serves on the House Judiciary Committee. Jackson Lee tweeted her support of Wright as a potential Supreme Court pick along with others including Judge Eunice Lee, Judge Candace Jackson-Akiwumi and NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney Sherrilyn Ifill.

Though Biden’s commitment to appointing a Black woman has stirred some controversy among people who say that the most qualified person should get the job regardless of race or gender, David Lillehaug, a retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice who served with Wright, said that Wright is the most qualified candidate, full stop.

“Judge Wright should be on any shortlist of the top candidates for the Supreme Court in the United States, regardless of demographic filter,” Lillehaug said. Lillehaug’s familiarity with Wright extends beyond the bench of the state’s high court — he worked with her in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the 1990s and has known her in various professional and personal capacities since 1995.

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Lillehaug said that while he has difficulty predicting how Wright’s nomination could change the high court over the decades she’d be on the bench, she would be a solid liberal addition by President Biden. And while he noted her strong adherence to matters of social justice and gender equity, Lillehaug said her rulings have historically been very by-the-book and respectful of precedent.

Former Associate Justice David Lillehaug
“I would characterize her as careful and diligent in identifying what is applicable precedent and then applying it,” Lillehaug said. “I saw that both in the Minnesota Court of Appeals when she was there, and the Minnesota Supreme Court. She’s somebody who really digs in and takes her time. And then when she makes her decision, it is typically made based on precedent and explained very clearly.”

As Lillehaug said, it’s difficult to predict exactly how any justice could influence or transform the Supreme Court — over the history of the Court, justices have served an average of 16 years, with many more recently serving for multiple decades. Currently 58, Wright could potentially serve on the Court for a few decades, giving new life to the liberal side of the bench in contrast to newly appointed Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney-Barrett.

In the short term, a Wright appointment may not bring much change at all to the Supreme Court. If nominated, she would be replacing Justice Stephen Breyer, who is considered part of the court’s liberal wing along with Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. According to Martin-Quinn scores, a commonly used measure of judicial ideology and political leanings, Breyer has been a consistent center-left justice. In recent years, his score was almost indistinguishable from Justice Elena Kagan, also considered a moderate liberal.

According to a recent analysis by political scientists Lee Epstein, Andrew Martin and Kevin Quinn, Wright actually falls slightly to the right of Justices Breyer and Kagan. Wright is also one of the very few judges in the country to have been appointed by a Republican, an Independent and a Democrat (she was appointed to the Minnesota District Court by independent Gov. Jesse Ventura, to the Minnesota Court of Appeals by GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty and then to the Minnesota Supreme Court by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton).

Wright’s experience 

From 1991 to 1995, Wright was an associate at Hogan & Hartson LLP (now Hogan Lovells LLP) in Washington, D.C. As a young attorney in the firm’s education and litigation practice groups, she represented school districts seeking to enhance educational opportunities for public school students. Wright successfully co-tried two civil damages bench trials awarding desegregation remedies in Kansas City. She also counseled school districts in Ohio, Indiana and Florida on issues relating to their court-ordered desegregation and student assignment obligations.  

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After serving in D.C., Wright came to Minnesota in 1995 as an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Minnesota. For five years, Wright represented the U.S. in violent crime and complex economic fraud cases in federal district courts and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. 

In 2000, Ventura appointed Wright to the Second Judicial District Court in Ramsey County, where she served as a trial judge for two years. Ventura then appointed Wright to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, where she remained from 2002 to 2012. From 2011 to 2012, Wright served as presiding judge on the Special Redistricting Panel. She won re-election to the court in 2004 and 2010.  

In 2012, Wright was appointed to the Minnesota Supreme Court by Dayton, becoming the first Black woman ever on the court. She won re-election in 2014 and remained on the court until 2016. On April 15, 2015, former President Barack Obama nominated her to the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota. The Senate confirmed her nomination by a vote of 58-36, which included support from 14 Republicans.

At age 58, Wright would be one of the younger justices to serve on the nation’s high court, but some are pushing for Biden to consider even younger due to the court’s lifetime designation for appointments and the fact Trump’s recent appointments (Kavanaugh is 56 and Coney Barrett just turned 50) will likely serve long terms due to their ages.

A commitment to civil rights and gender equity

Though Lillehaug said Wright’s style has for decades been extremely by-the-books, he said that one thing that stood out to him about some of her opinions was her commitment to gender equality and civil rights. 

“She did not write many dissents, but when she did, they were sometimes in that area,” Lillehaug said. 

In 2005, when Wright was on the Minnesota Court of Appeals, she held that an employee was entitled to receive unemployment benefits even after she quit — because of sexual harassment caused by the employer.

In Aragon v. Ku, a 2017 case, Wright ruled in favor of 12 grocery store employees who sued their employers after a series of harassing and discriminatory incidents. She also held that defendants’ violence, confinement and threats of deportation violated a federal law designed to protect victims of human trafficking. 

Last year, journalists brought a lawsuit alleging they were targeted and attacked by law enforcement while covering the civil unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd. In the ruling on Goyette v. City of Minneapolis, Wright imposed a ban on some Minnesota law enforcement agencies from arresting, threatening, or using force against journalists in the field without probable cause.

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“(Wright) has professional integrity of following the law, but she also has personal integrity as well,” Lillehaug said. “And she’s really careful to live her life in a way that you would want attached to somebody who’s going to decide the most important issues in the country. She’s somebody who has an impeccable reputation.”