It was short and sweet: In a 12-minute ceremony outside the Minnesota Supreme Court Chambers in St. Paul on Tuesday, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton revealed Natalie Hudson as his newest appointment to the state’s highest court.
The straightforward proceedings were fitting for the job — and those who seek it out. On several occasions Dayton and others thanked retiring Associate Justice Alan Page for his more than two decades of service, noting each time that they are well aware he hates it when people heap praise on him. Hudson was equally understated and soft-spoken in her acceptance of the job, which comes after serving 13 years on the state’s Court of Appeals.
“It’s the court of last resort, it has the task of not only clarifying the law but also setting policy for the people of Minnesota,” Hudson said. “That is something that is near and dear to my heart, the ability and the opportunity to play a role in shaping the laws and shaping the future of how we are to be … as a community.”
The formality only broke near the end of the announcement, when Dayton asked if Hudson’s mother, who was in attendance, wished to speak to her daughter’s credentials. “I thought you liked me, Gov. Dayton,” Hudson said, laughing and giving him a hug.
Hudson’s pick is not surprising: She was previously considered by Dayton for the Supreme Court in 2013, but the governor ultimately picked attorney David Lillehaug for the post. She was recommended again this year by a special judicial selection panel, along with two other women. Dayton has said maintaining diversity on the high court is important. She will join two other women on the court, including Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, but Associate Justice Wilhelmina Wright is awaiting confirmation to a federal judgeship and may soon depart.
Here are four things to know about Minnesota’s newest associate justice and what her appointment could mean for the state Supreme Court:
She got her start in employment and housing law: Originally from Jefferson City, Missouri, Hudson moved to Minnesota to attend law school, graduating in 1982. She went right to work for the Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, assisting low-income people with housing-law issues. After four years there, she joined Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi in Minneapolis and practiced employment law. She moved on to serve as assistant dean of student affairs at Hamline University, the St. Paul City Attorney’s office and in the state attorney general’s office. In appointing her to the Minnesota Court of Appeals in 2002, Gov. Jesse Ventura said he was attracted to Hudson’s “ability to relate to people one-on-one in the community, which will help make the court more understandable to the average citizen.”
She’s noted for her people skills: Dayton echoed Ventura in elevating Hudson to the Supreme Court, saying her “concern for people, the concern for individual rights, the concern for right of the person against the power of the state” stuck out to him. “I do think that understanding that this is a human being and that that person is standing in an awesome setting before the highest court of Minnesota, and recognition of that struck me,” Dayton added.
She has more than a decade of experience as a judge: The Minnesota Court of Appeals is often the last stop for cases from lower courts or local governments (the state Supreme Court reconsiders only a handful of their decisions every year), which means Hudson had a front row seat to thousands of cases over the years. She authored more than 100 published opinions during that time.
She was the presiding judge when Idaho U.S. Sen. Larry Craig attempted to withdraw his guilty plea in 2007, after he was arrested at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport by an undercover airport police officer investigating complaints of lewd behavior in the men’s room. In 2013, she overturned a lower-court decision and ruled that a guardian can authorize the disconnection of life-support systems in Minnesota without the intervention of the courts.
“Although courts are experienced in making reasoned and impartial decisions, doctors and medical-ethics committees have the most appropriate knowledge and expertise to evaluate the potential for a ward’s long-term recovery and quality of life and advising a guardian on end-of-life decision-making,” Hudson wrote in her decision at the time.
In 2012, she presided over a case that received national attention: A Chisago County man sued his uncle for harassment for posting a childhood picture of him to Facebook accompanied by a snarky caption. When the man asked his uncle to take the photos down, the uncle refused. Hudson ruled that “to constitute harassment, words must have a substantial adverse effect on the safety, security, or privacy of another. Comments that are mean and disrespectful, coupled with innocuous family photos, do not affect a person’s safety, security, or privacy — and certainly not substantially so.”
She isn’t expected to dramatically alter the court’s philosophy: Hudson will replace Page, the only judge initially elected to the court (most justices are appointed first and then face re-election). She will also bring Dayton’s total number of appointees up to three, with the other four justices on the court appointed by former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. But don’t expect that to change the philosophy of the court dramatically. The Minnesota Supreme Court is nowhere near as ideologically divided as the United States Supreme Court, notes William Mitchell College of Law professor and court observer Peter Knapp. Historically, anywhere from 60 to 75 percent of the state Supreme Court decisions have no dissent. “Anytime you add a new justice to a group of seven, you shuffle the deck,” Knapp said. “A lot of their decisions they have very broad consensus. State Supreme courts are different and we have been blessed to have a court that has been able to work together and find common ground on a lot of issues.”