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Breaking down Minnesota’s judiciary

You’d think Bridget Sullivan would be in a good mood. A little over a week ago she defeated Paul Scoggin for seat 43 in Hennepin County Court with 60 percent of the vote. For Sullivan, a seat on the bench is the culmination of a lifetime dream.

Still, if the champagne was popped, the sound of the cork was muted. Though Sullivan is thrilled she won, she has a problem with the make-up of Minnesota’s judiciary, which now includes her. 

“We have a problem with diversity on the bench, and that’s not a secret to anyone,” she says during an interview a few days after winning her election. “One thing is there aren’t many people of color on the bench. None, in fact, ran this year.”

Sullivan is hardly alone in this critique. So, to get a better sense of the make-up of those who preside over Minnesota courts, MinnPost reviewed the backgrounds of every sitting judge and incoming judge who has a biography available at the Minnesota Judicial Branch (excluding semi-retired senior judges at the state level). From that pool of 346 judges, we broke down the state judiciary by race, gender, and professional and educational background. We also examined every judge appointed by the last three governors to see how that affected the composition of the judiciary. Here's what we found:  

Gender diversity

First, let's look at gender diversity on the bench. In Minnesota, almost two-thirds of judges are men.

Male v. female

Racial diversity

In a state's that's more than 83 percent white, it might not be a surprise that Minnesota doesn't have a large number of judges of color. What may be a surprise, however, is just how few minority members of the bench there are:

White v. minority judges

That lack of diversity has deep impacts, Sullivan says. “It erodes trust in the system that there will be a just result that comes through the process. Not everyone in our community has that trust.” 

Judge-elect Bridget Sullivan
Judge-elect Bridget Sullivan

Recent ACLU studies that show people of color are 11 times more likely to be arrested for disturbing the peace than a white person, and four times more likely to have their car searched. “In Minnesota if you end up in court you’re going to end up with a judge who doesn’t know what it’s like to get arrested for driving while black," said Sullivan.

Gov. Mark Dayton's administration has touted its commitment to diversity, and our analysis shows that the number of women and minorities appointed to the bench have increased since he took office. However, when it comes to the percentage of judicial appointees coming from communities of color, Gov. Jesse Ventura actually has the best record, with 14 percent of his appointees coming from minority backgrounds. 

First, a look at the total number of appointments by governor:

Most appointments by governor

Now, a look at the number of minority appointees by each of those governors:

Minority appointments by governor

Diversity of professional experience

The lack of diversity isn't limited to race, however. The Minnesota bench is heavily dominated by judges who have been prosecutors at some point in their careers, and far less who have had any experience as public defenders or who have worked in legal aid. That too can have consequences, says Sullivan, in that judges are more likely to view cases from that lens, and not be familiar with the backgrounds of minority defendants.

Prosecutor v. public defender background

There’s also the question of financial resources for those who want to be judges, a factor that is often determined by the size of firm an attorney works for before appointment or election. Quite simply, if you work for a medium- or large-sized firm (which we define here as those with 10 or more lawyers), you have multiple advantages: most notably, an access to a network of support that can be tapped for fundraising support and campaign help.

“I spent $90,000 of my own money on my race,” Sullivan says. “You talk to a lot of minority candidates about running and money usually ends the conversation right there. They either don’t have the funds or the big-firm connections to launch a run. And that’s a problem, and a shame, as there is no shortage of good candidates out there.”

“I’d love to see more judges on the bench who were solo practitioners at some point,” Sullivan says. “I think that would show they know how to work directly with real people. You don’t see that often.”

(For the purposes of the chart below, in-house counsel is defined as anyone who had experience as a general counsel at a corporation or private company.)

Big firm v. solo practitioner

Law schools

One final note on the makeup of the judiciary. When it comes to where Minnesota judges went to law school, the University of Minnesota is the most popular feeder school, although not by a landslide.

Top law schools

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Peter Mikkalson on 11/14/2014 - 12:27 pm.

    Re: I got it wrong..

    .. I thought this would be another commercial for judicial referendum. Laughable, since almost certainly the committee’s picks would be indicative of themselves-white and connected. Mea Culpa.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/14/2014 - 12:57 pm.


    I’d be interested in a comparison of Minnesota with a couple of other states to which it’s often compared, or at least *can* be compared, in terms of population – say, Colorado, Washington, Wisconsin, and maybe even Missouri, all of which are reasonably close to Minnesota in terms of population.

    Indeed, if it takes $90,000 to run a supposedly nonpartisan judicial campaign, money probably rules out *anyone* whose career has largely been as a public defender, not to mention most women and most minority lawyers.

  3. Submitted by Joe Smithers on 11/14/2014 - 02:35 pm.


    Dayton did a lousy job of appointing judges. His last one was a terrible choice. She lacks legal knowledge, tack, morals and ethics. She was a poor attorney and an even worse judge.

  4. Submitted by Don Casey on 11/14/2014 - 03:49 pm.


    Isn’t the pool of candidates a factor? If 63% of the practicing attorneys are male, why wouldn’t roughly 63% of judges be male? 83% of judges are white; what percent of practicing attorneys are white?

    Judging diversity on the basis of the demographics of the general population would seem to ignore the fact that the pool of qualified candidates may not reflect the general population.

    In a perfect world, the diversity in any given profession might reflect the general population. But, alas, this is not a perfect world — nor is it likely to be any time soon.

    • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 11/17/2014 - 09:30 am.


      I couldn’t care less about the demographics as long as the candidates are actually qualified. Something that Dayton has completely failed at.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Dorgan on 11/15/2014 - 10:09 am.


    Another critical factor to consider: the ratio of plaintiff’s attorneys to corporate defense lawyers.

    • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 11/17/2014 - 09:29 am.


      Where do you put the ones who have been on both sides? There are some that have been part of both public defense and prosecution.

  6. Submitted by Keith Ford on 11/16/2014 - 08:29 pm.

    Judicial Diversity

    Too bad the analysis didn’t go back as far as Gov. Rudy Perpich. Perpich was determined to see more women, minorities, lawyers from smaller firms and lawyers with justice advocacy backgrounds. It was for this reason that he rejected the traditional setup of asking the bar association to recommend candidates, calling that a formula for continuing the hegemony of white men from the establishment. Instead he created his own commission with the charge to increase the diversity of the judiciary in every every respect. Indeed, the establishment sqeeled and began the drumbeat of charging Perpich with cronyism, a charge that the Star Tribune kept going for eight years and which the rest of the media and the GOP happily piled on.

    But Perpich transformed Minnesota’s judiciary so that it more closely represented the people of Minnesota. To his credit, Governor Arne Carlson continued that commitment to diversity, which we seem now to have lost.

  7. Submitted by Doug Gray on 11/17/2014 - 10:09 am.


    …aren’t Minnesota judges supposed to be elected? I wonder what the effect would be on the makeup of the state bench if we barred judges appointed to vacancies from running for their seats as “incumbents?” I personally avoid voting for former prosecutors; this column makes me glad I chose Judge Sullivan.

    • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 11/17/2014 - 11:07 am.


      They are up for election but are appointed by Dayton which he has failed miserably at when choosing ones that are clearly not qualified. It’s unfortunate that there usually are not any challengers to the unqualified ones during the election.

      • Submitted by Doug Gray on 11/17/2014 - 01:21 pm.

        Which ones exactly would be unqualified? All those (s)elected by Democrats or Independents I suppose?

        • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 11/17/2014 - 04:05 pm.

          Been trying

          to post who I think is unqualified but apparently the mods here think I can’t do that. Take a look at who Dayton appointed most recently and you will see at least one that is unqualified. What did being selected by a democrat or independent have to do with her being unqualified?

          • Submitted by jason myron on 11/17/2014 - 06:40 pm.

            Well, I just checked them all

            and I can’t see why you would think any are unqualified. Perhaps you should enlighten us as to why you think they’re unqualified?

            • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 11/18/2014 - 10:33 am.


              She is there but her lack of qualifications does not show up on paper. I explained why I believe she is unqualified in my first post.

  8. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 11/17/2014 - 07:47 pm.

    Better judges, anyone?

    Isn’t being a good judge much more important than what color or gender a judge is? When will stop evaluating everything by the skin color and gender? Let’s prohibit men from running for a governor next time – we got to have a woman governor in Minnesota… And while we are at that, let’s prohibit giving larger tips to waitresses compared to waiters… Equality is equality!

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 11/18/2014 - 11:47 am.

      I would submit that if less attention were paid to color, gender, and/or membership in good standing with the legal establishment than to actual qualifications, the Minnesota bench would look more like Minnesota than it does today. I would further submit that effective elections, rather than the current system of (s)elections, would be a good first step toward that end.

  9. Submitted by jason myron on 11/17/2014 - 09:15 pm.

    You seem to be really be struggling as of late.

    Equality isn’t about stacking the deck, it’s about creating a level playing field.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 11/18/2014 - 07:01 pm.


      And creating a level playing field means trying to specifically find judges of color and females. I see, an interesting approach to level field…

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