Justice Wilhelmina Wright talks equality and accountability

The public should hold all judges accountable, said Minnesota State Supreme Court Justice Wilhelmina Wright.

Wright is the second youngest justice, and the first and only Black female on the state high court. She was appointed to the state high court by Gov. Mark Dayton in 2012 and served as an appeals court judge (2002-2012).

She began her law career as a law clerk for U.S. Appeals Court Judge Damon Keith, and then worked at a private law firm before joining the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minnesota.

Wright with student hosts Jenny Chavez (l) and Jacqueline Zelaya (r)
Wright with student hosts Jenny Chavez (l) and Jacqueline Zelaya (r)

She told the MSR Monday at Edison High School, “We are public servants. The promises we make [are] to work hard, be fair and be impartial. And to make sure that everybody receives equal justice under the law. That’s what we pledged to [do] and those are the things in our everyday work that we perform.”

The justices heard oral arguments on a first degree murder conviction case at Edison as part of the group’s traveling oral argument bi-annual program that teaches students about the court system, and allow them to see in action a case being heard by the court. An estimated 250 Minneapolis high school students from three high schools: North, South and Edison participated, and asked the justices general questions afterwards.

Wright said she was impressed with the students’ “level of interest throughout the oral arguments, and then the questions they asked of us. They clearly were well qualified [questions] and were well prepared.”

She responded to one question about accountability, explaining that justices are non-partisan and should be held accountable, but not as elected politicians are held accountable. “We don’t subscribe to a particular political environment” in order to hear cases, she pointed out. “We take an oath to uphold the constitution.”

After the Q & A she expounded on the topic of accountability stating, “I come to each case neutral, and apply the law to the case without fear and without favor.”

The justices also met with students during a lunch and visited classrooms during the afternoon.

“I think one of the great things about this project is that students are exposed at an early age to an important part of our constitutional democracy and how every aspect of the case works,” said Wright.

“I’m hoping that we have given some greater understanding and transparency to our process because we got to come to a public school in Minneapolis and help people understand what we do and why we do it.”

Justices W. Wright, Christopher Dietzen, Alan Page
(l-r): Justices Wilhelmina Wright, Christopher Dietzen and Alan Page

Wright and Associate Justice Alan Page, who will retire later this year because he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70, are the only justices of color on the state Supreme Court. President Barack Obama last month nominated Wright to succeed Michael Davis as U.S. District Court judge for Minnesota. Her nomination is now pending with the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I think everyone in Minnesota and in the United States is guaranteed [equal justice]…and it’s important for us to fulfill that mandate in the work that we do every day,” Wright said.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.