Bending Toward Justice: The Black Experience in the Minnesota Judiciary

Minnesota Judiciary

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In the Minnesota judiciary, the moral arc has been long yet has bent toward justice.


Before there were African Americans on the bench in Minnesota there were pioneering attorneys and events that shaped the African America experience in Minnesota. It is fitting to begin any discussion about Minnesota legal black history with the events in Duluth Minnesota for which we will celebrate the centennial in June 2020.

On June 14, 1920, six young African American boys in Duluth Minnesota were arrested and charged with assaulting a 19-year-old white woman. In the early morning of June 15, a mob of 5,000-10,000 people converged on the jail and took Issac McGhee, Elmer Jackson, and Elias Clayton from their jail cell and lynched them by hanging them on light poles on First Avenue in Duluth for all to see. In the aftermath of this atrocity, W. T. Francis, a black attorney, helped write and pass Minnesota’s anti-lynching law in 1921, the first such law in the United States. In addition, the NAACP hired three attorneys, including Charles Scrutchin, one of the first black attorneys to practice outside of the Twin Cities to represent the accused.

There were no convictions for the lynching deaths.

Historically, the relationship between African Americans and the majority community has been turbulent at best, and African American attorneys have been at the forefront of navigating this turbulence. In the 1900s, Frederick McGee, the first African America lawyer in the state worked with W.E.B. DuBois to form the Niagara Movement, the precursor to the N.A.A.C.P. In the 1930s, Lena O. Smith, the first African American woman lawyer sued Minneapolis to redress housing discrimination for the benefit of African American. In 1971, the Minneapolis Chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. sued the Minneapolis school district alleging racial segregation. See Booker v. Special Sch. Dist. No. 1. In 2015-2016, after the shootings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile, the Black Lives Matter movement shined a light on the intersection of race and the justice system, and changed the dialogue about what it means to seek justice.


Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “[i]t is the mark of a maturing legal system that it seeks to understand and to implement the lessons of history. See Pena v. Colorado, 137 S. Ct. 855, 869 (2017). In the Minnesota courts there was one lesson of history that we can all agree upon, racial bias is omnipresent.

In December 1990, Minnesota Supreme Court created the Task Force on Racial Bias in the Judicial System, which was chaired by Associate Su- preme Court Justice Rosalie Wahl, and charged with conducting an investigation into whether there were specific conduct that cause unfairness on people of color in the Minnesota court system. This was an unprecedented dive into racial bias in the judicial system including nine public hearing, input for 261 judges, and over 4,000 attorneys.

Minnesota was the 14th state to convene a Racial Bias Taskforce.

On June 10, 1993, the taskforce issued its 355-page final report which identified racial bias issues in the Minnesota legal community and made over 130 recommendations that served as a blueprint for how to move forward. The Racial Bias Task Force examined criminal, civil, family, and juvenile law areas, the collected data on treatment of litigants and witnesses, hiring practices within the court system, and treatment of people of color.

On the day the report was released, the Minnesota Supreme Court established the Implementation Committee on Multicultural Diversity and Racial Fairness in the Courts, chaired by Justice Alan Page and Judge Tanya Bransford. The Implementation Committee was charged with implementing the Racial Bias Task Force recommendations and monitoring the progress.

In 2006, the Court created the Racial Fairness committee, an advisory committee to the Minnesota Judicial Council which was charged with the continued implementation of the Race Bias Task Force’s final report. In 2010, the Racial Fairness Committee and Gender Fairness Committee were consolidated to form the Committee for Equality and Justice, an advisory committee to the Minnesota Judicial Council with the mission of advancing efforts to eliminate bias from court operations, promote equal access to the court, and inspire a high level of trust and public confidence in the Minnesota Judicial Branch.

Through all the triumphs and setbacks of African Americans in the Minnesota legal community, it is clear that, through self-reflection, the legal community continues to mature. It continues to seek understanding and implementation of the lessons of history to bend the moral arc toward justice.


“The life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

The history of African Americans in the Minnesota judiciary is a history of African Americans adding their experience to the Minnesota judiciary. This history began on January 6, 1958 when L. Howard Bennett was sworn in as the first African America Judge in Minnesota history. Governor Orville Freeman appointed him to the municipal bench in 1957 after Bennett led the local branch of the NAACP and the Urban League. The progress that Judge Bennett represented turned into a setback, when, two years after being the first African American appointed to the bench he was defeated in his election bid.

In 1967, Governor Harold LeVander appointed Stephen L. Maxwell to the municipal court and then to the district court bench in Ramsey County, making him the first African American to serve as a district court judge in Minnesota. Judge Maxwell also became the first African American judge to win an election. In 1973, William Poston was appointed to the district court bench. Judge Poston was the third African American appointed to the bench and was celebrated as a pioneer in victim rights when he allowed a rape victim to select the punishment for her assailant.

The experience of African Americans on the Minnesota bench is an experience of firsts. In 1983, Pamela Alexander became the first African American female judge in Minnesota. In 1990, Judge Alexander would be at the forefront of the drug sentencing disparities debate when she ruled the sentencing disparities between crack cocaine and powder cocaine violated the equal protection clause at the very time when she was very much in the running to become a federal court judge.

On Jan. 4, 1993, Alan Page became the first-ever African American to be serve on the Minnesota Supreme Court. Justice Page’s journey to the Supreme Court was by election in 1992, and he needed to litigate over his right to be included on the ballot and become the first African American on the Minnesota Supreme Court. See Page v. Carlson, 488 N.W.2d 274 (Minn. 1992).

On March 28, 1994, Judge Michael Davis became the first African American appointed a judge to the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota. In 2008, Judge Davis became first African American Chief Judge for the District of Minnesota. On March 13, 1995, Judge Edward Toussaint Jr, was the first African American to be appointed the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Judge Toussaint was also the first African American Workers Compensation Court of Appeals judge. Judge Toussaint was appointed Chief Judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals in 1995 by Governor Arne Carlson.

In 2012, Judge Wilhelmina Wright became the first African American female appointed as a Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. In 2015, Justice Wright would become the first African American female appointed a judge to the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota. On June 3, 2002, Natalie Hudson became the first African American female appointed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. On Oct. 26, 2015, Judge Hudson become the third African American to join the Minnesota Supreme Court.

As African Americans expand our roles in the Minnesota courts, we have continued to experience being the first. In 2001, Judge Joseph Carter became the first African American appointed in Dakota County. In 2009, Judge James Cunningham became the first African American appointed in Anoka County. In 2019, Judge Juanita Freeman became the first African American appointed in Washington County.

As I write this, I am sure that there are notable events and people that that I have neglected, judges that have presided over significant cases, and events that have shaped the trajectory of African Americans in the Minnesota judiciary. It’s important to see courtrooms reflect the communities they serve. The Minnesota judiciary has, over history, moved toward reflecting the increasing diversity of the state. The history of the African Americans in the Minnesota judiciary is one of excellence. African Americans have often had reasons to feel suspicious about the system. While there are reasons to feel suspicious about the system, there is more reasons to feel proud of the accomplishments of the Black judiciary.

There are currently 17 African American judges on the state bench, and we continue to make strides. However, we desire a day when we are no longer celebrating historic “firsts” for African Americans in the Minnesota Judiciary. Judge JaPaul J. Harris

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Trending Articles