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Chief justice: Small town 'everything I am'


Lorie Gildea
Lorie Gildea talks to reporters Thursday just after Gov. Tim Pawlenty named her the new Minnesota Supreme Court chief justice. She grew up in northwestern Minnesota and attended the University of Minnesota Morris. Don Davis / State Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL - Lorie Skjerven Gildea's first task when she became a Minnesota Supreme Court justice was to hang a photo of Plummer on her office wall.

"It is everything I am," said the native of the northwest Minnesota town with no stoplights or street signs.

Thirty-three students were in her high school graduating class but, she once said, "I was a teenager with big dreams."

Now, as she prepares to become the Minnesota Supreme Court's chief justice this summer, Gildea has graduated: "I am living the American dream."

Gildea has been a justice since 2006, after a brief time on the Hennepin County District Court bench. While she has spent time in Washington, D.C., and now lives in Minneapolis, her hometown, population 264, is what drives her.


"You have to depend on your neighbors," she recalled shortly after Gov. Tim Pawlenty named her the state's top judge on Thursday.

At 48, she is young for a chief justice, but has background as a University of Minnesota lawyer, assistant Hennepin County attorney, lawyer in Washington and an editor of the American Criminal Law Review.

Her University of Minnesota boss, Mark Rotenberg, said Gildea adapted to the big city well and won many difficult cases on behalf of the school.

Rotenberg cited her upbringing as one reason for her success.

"She has many deeply held values that reflect the best of small-town, rural Minnesota folks who believe the best you can do is work hard and be honest," Rotenberg said. "I think she has those kinds of values and will reflect those on the bench."

After graduating from the University of Minnesota, Morris, she earned a law degree from Georgetown University in Washington. Gildea graduated with a political science degree from Morris in 1983 and three years ago won the school's Distinguished Alumni Award.

"The day I decided to attend UMM was one of the best days of my life," Gildea once said.

Gildea was a perfect 4.0 student at Morris.


Her political science studies became important at Morris, where she won the student association president position.

Pawlenty, who named her a Supreme Court justice in 2006, said that in her time as judge and justice, Gildea has "exhibited common sense, a strong intellect and a commitment to the idea that judges should fairly and appropriately interpret the law, not create it themselves."

In political circles, Pawlenty's words indicate that he approves of her conservative credentials. Those credentials also apply to her husband, Andy, a longtime Republican operative.

Gildea follows by just a couple of years another northwest Minnesotan as chief justice. Russell Anderson held the position before the current top judge, Eric Magnuson, got the job. Anderson grew up in Bemidji but spent much of his judicial career in northwest Minnesota courts.

A person who wrote about Gildea said she was a good pick.

Samuel Schuman, former chancellor at Morris, penned a chapter about Gildea in a book he wrote about small colleges, "Old Main: Small Colleges in Twenty-First Century America."

"Lorie's parents were hardworking and modestly successful," Schuman wrote in the book.

She always wanted to be a lawyer, Schuman said.


"With her splendid academic history, this small-college alum could have gone just about anywhere to practice law and could have made heaps of money," "Old Main" reads. "Instead, like most UMM graduates, she came back to Minnesota. And she decided to pursue a career in law in the public sector."

Schuman noted that Gildea's roots led to her success at Morris and her rise in the legal profession.

"I think her small-town origin gives her a firm sense of realism, a lack of pretension and some of her toughness," Schuman said. "I predict she will be a spectacular success in this new role and in whatever her future holds."

Tellijohn reports for Forum Communications Co.

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