The pledge by Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden last month that he will, if elected, appoint an African American woman to the first available vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, can be fulfilled right here in Minnesota, more specifically St. Paul.
The Democratic front-runner’s pledge slipped in during his debate with Bernie Sanders, was overshadowed by the former vice president’s headline-grabbing announcement that he will select a woman as his running mate.
It’s likely that he will, if he prevails, get the opportunity to fill at least one slot, maybe more, on the High Court as the average age of the tribunals nine members is 72, excluding President Trump’s two mid-50-year-old appointees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. This creates a high likelihood that voluntary or involuntary openings will arise during the next four years.
Minnesota boasts two prime candidates for Biden’s wish list, and they both live here in St. Paul: U.S. District Court Judge Wilhelmina Wright and Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Natalie Hudson.
The two Black women jurists, who both live in St. Paul, have comparably impeccable credentials for a seat on the High Court. Each has had experience in private practice handling complex civil litigation. Both have worked as criminal prosecutors, Wright in the federal system and Hudson as St. Paul City Attorney.
They each also served for several years as appellate court jurists. Wright served on the state Court of Appeals for a decade, after spending a few years as a Ramsey County District Court Judge and as a federal trial judge in the Twin Cities for the past four years following a three-and-a-half-year stint on the state Supreme Court, where Hudson has been since 2015 after 13 years on the appellate tribunal.
Although appointed to their initial judicial positions by Governor Jesse Ventura, their subsequent elevations have been made by Democratic office-holders, Governor Mark Dayton and President Barack Obama, giving them political imprimatur that should please Biden’s base.
Three long-time St. Paulites have sat on the U.S. Supreme Court: Pierce Butler, like Hudson a former St. Paul city attorney, in the 1920s-1930s; and the Minnesota “twins,” Chief Justice Warren Burger and his childhood friend Harry Blackmun, covered a 25-year span from 1969 through 1994.
William O. Douglas, the longest-serving justice, who was born in tiny Maine Township in Otter Tail County near Fergus Falls but left as an infant with his family and is considered to be from Washington State.
While Biden is virtually assured of the Democratic nomination now that Sanders dropped out last week, there is no assurance that he will prevail, and if he does, no assurance there will be a High Court opening for him to fill, subject to approval by the Senate.
But if Biden is elected, which is a distinct possibility, and a Supreme Court vacancy does materialize, which is probable, he can be assured that there are at least two highly-qualified Black Minnesota women jurists in the waiting line.
Marshall H. Tanick is a Twin Cities Constitutional law attorney and historian.