He praised Lillehaug's ability to condense complex legal issues into understandable writings, and pointed out that it's not historically unusual for Minnesota governors to appoint political allies to the state Supreme Court.
In his second appointment to the Minnesota Supreme Court, Gov. Mark Dayton turned Tuesday to a former U.S. attorney and well-connected Democrat who has provided legal counsel to the governor at several pivotal points.
Dayton's choice for the state's highest court was David Lillehaug, a private attorney from Minneapolis who represented Dayton during the governor's race recount in 2010 and again during the state government shutdown of 2011. Lillehaug previously served as U.S. attorney for Minnesota from 1994 to 1998 — he was appointed by President Bill Clinton — and has ties to the upper reaches of Minnesota's Democratic Party going back 30 years to when he was an aide to former Vice President Walter Mondale during his 1984 presidential campaign.
Dayton said Lillehaug has "one of the most brilliant minds I've ever encountered." He praised Lillehaug's ability to condense complex legal issues into understandable writings, and pointed out that it's not historically unusual for Minnesota governors to appoint political allies to the state Supreme Court.
In fact, the judge that Lillehaug will replace — Justice Paul Anderson, who in May will reach the court's mandatory retirement age of 70 — had been a campaign lawyer for the governor who appointed him, Republican Arne Carlson. Two current justices appointed by former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, G. Barry Anderson and Christopher Dietzen, also had GOP ties: Anderson was a lawyer for the state Republican Party and Dietzen represented Pawlenty during his 2002 campaign.
"I will leave behind the world of advocacy and swear a solemn oath to be fair and impartial," Lillehaug said. He described the appointment as "the highest honor a Minnesota attorney can receive."
Lillehaug, 58, is a South Dakota native who graduated from Augustana College in Sioux Falls and Harvard Law School. Early in his career, he worked at a Washington, D.C. law firm, while also spending time working on Mondale's presidential campaign. He eventually joined the campaign full-time, traveling with Mondale while writing speeches and briefing him on issues. He returned to Minnesota in 1985 to practice law until Clinton appointed him to be Minnesota's top federal prosecutor in 1994.
In 1998, Lillehaug made the first of two unsuccessful bids for political office when he failed in his attempt to secure the DFL endorsement to run for state attorney general. Two years later, he made an unsuccessful run for the party's U.S. Senate endorsement. Soon after, he returned to private practice at the Minneapolis firm Fredrikson and Byron, but continued to provide legal counsel to a number of prominent Minnesota Democrats.
In addition to working on Dayton's 2010 recount, Lillehaug played a similar role for U.S. Sen. Al Franken in his own election recount and the ensuing trial. He has served many non-political clients as well, including a number of large Minnesota businesses and nonprofit groups.
Lillehaug said as a justice, he would be guided by precedent and principles.
"The Minnesota Supreme Court does not write on a blank slate," Lillehaug said. "What it does write is good oftentimes for decades, and potentially hundreds of years. As a lawyer, I cited cases from the early days of Minnesota statehood, and if they're good law they should remain good law."
Dayton has appointed one other person to the state Supreme Court, Justice Wilhelmina Wright, who joined the court in October. Both Wright and Lillehaug will have to defend their seats in the 2014 election. No more current justices are due to reach mandatory retirement until after Dayton's first term ends; the next two to hit 70 are Justice Alan Page, in 2015, and Dietzen, in 2017.
Once Lillehaug joins, the court will be comprised of two Dayton appointees; four Pawlenty appointees; and Page, who was directly elected to the court in 1992.
Lillehaug is scheduled to be sworn in on May 31. Anderson, the justice he's replacing, joined Dayton and Lillehaug at Tuesday's announcement where he defended appointing justices with political ties.
"Don't let anyone take any shots at you because you've been involved politically," Anderson said to Lillehaug. "We need people who've been in the trenches."