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Meet MN Supreme Court Justice Paul Thissen for Election in 2020

  Paul Thissengrew up in Bloomington MN he graduated from Harvard University and then earned his law degree from the University of Chicago Law School.

In his public life Paul Thissen served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for 16 years and served as Speaker of the Minnesota House from 2013 to 2015 – he also ran for MN Governor in 2010 and 2018.

In April 2018, Governor Mark Dayton appointed Paul to the Minnesota Supreme Court.  Now he is announcing his reelection bid for the MN Supreme Court. He has an opponent in the election, Michelle MacDonald and we are working on getting an interview with her as well.

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( Heidi) Q:   So I am so curious what it's like to go from serving the public as a Legislator to becoming a Supreme Court justice?

(Justice Thissen) A:  That’s a really good question. It’s a very different job. It is a similar job in the sense that you are trying to serve Minnesotans and reflect Minnesota values. But the job of the Legislature and the role of a Legislator is to make the laws - to hear what problems people are facing and to try to work with colleagues, to come up with solutions -  balancing out different interests…that kind of thing.

And the job of a Judge or a Justice is to make sure that you're following the intent of the Legislature. We're not there to make new laws in that sense - we are there to follow what the Legislature has said through statutes and through the law. It’s a very different job in that regard.

One of the things I really like about it - in the Legislature you're always reacting to things that are happening.  In this job, you actually get some time to sit back and, and really think through the issue. And I really liked that part of it as well.  I think it leads us in some ways to better decision

Q: You served in the legislature as a Democrat – but Justices are nonpartisan.

A:  Yes, in several ways.  First the election is non-partisan. Secondly we work very hard and I personally work hard at this because of my previous history – we work very hard to make sure that what we're doing is applying law in a nonpartisan way. And we have a lots of kind of guardrails to help us do that.

Basically our court has existed since the beginning of statehood and we speak as a court.  We have precedent old cases that we rely on that kind of bind us. Like I said before our job is to interpret the statutes and to follow what the Legislature said. The good news on our court is we have a very much of a culture of trying to come up with consensus and collegiality. So even though we have people appointed by Governor Pawlenty and by Governor Dayton – this year we reached unanimous decisions in over 80% of our cases. We worked very hard to come together to common ground because we want to speak as far as we can as a single court for the people of Minnesota - knowing that our decisions could be cited 50 to 60 years from now.

Q:  Have you had it happen that laws you are interpreting are laws you had a hand in making?

A:  Nothing that has actually been like a law where I was the author of the law. But certainly we've had to interpret laws that I voted on – many of which - quite frankly - I don't remember having voted on. I also have to say one of the things that has been a little bit striking is even though we worked very hard in the Legislature to try to write the law as clearly as possible I do get embarrassed sometimes when I'm trying to interpret it now. The Legislature does leave things kind of gray and not quite as crystal clear as you would like - but I've never had one where I was the author of the law.

(John Bauer) Q:  So I'm going to ask you a naive question. You said you love your job because it gives you time to think. How do you guys do that? Do you, are you always in a group, do you get time to just be by yourself and think about the subject?

(Justice Thissen) A:  There’s seven of us on the court and much of my time is actually spent more by myself. So the way it works is we will get the chance to grant review. So in many ways get to choose the cases we take because they're of statewide importance. So once we take a case the lawyers will file the briefs and each judge - each justice will read through the briefs - read through the law and come up with an idea of how they want to decide the case on their own.  And then we meet together all seven of us for what we call oral argument or where the lawyers come in and they have a half an hour to make their pitch- to explain why they think their clients should win.

That's really the first time that we are all together, hearing the case together and hearing the questions each other's asking. And then immediately after that, we go into a room, just the seven of us together and go around the table and each gets to speak as long as they want without interruption about how they would decide the case. Then we discuss it. So we prepare the cases on our own, and it's really only after oral argument, when we get in that room, that all seven of us to get together to talk about how we think the case should come out.  That's where we work very hard to reach a consensus:   What makes the most sense?  What's most consistent with the law?  Did that answer the question?

Q:   You painted a picture. Thank you. We're talking with Minnesota Supreme court justice Paul Thissen on KAXE/KBXE. So far in the Supreme Court, what are some of the experiences that have stood out most to you?

A:  Of the cases we take - we probably have a majority of criminal cases. Those can be really hard cases. Two things:  I guess I would say the first thing is the hardest cases to me are the ones when you're reading the story of the case (cause that's really what a case is, right?)  It's a story of two people and a dispute.  And oftentimes and especially as criminal cases where you can see that moment where had someone made a different decision it would have gone a different way and you wouldn't have the pain for the victim and the victim's family. You wouldn't have the consequences for the defendant. Those moments where you can just see if a different decision had just been made right then - things would be so much better.

That’s what really surprisingly has stuck with me as I've done these cases and then you have to go and decide the case based on the facts as they occurred - I just see that so often.

And the second thing that has been striking to me - the state Supreme Court actually has the administrative responsibility for the whole court system in Minnesota because of separation of powers. And so there's a lot of administrative things that we can do - how we set up the rules of the court programs we've put in place like drug courts and mental health courts that can actually increase access to justice and make sure that people get their day in court and have their voice heard.

And to me, that's been really eye opening and exciting because we do have a problem in Minnesota - whether you're a person of color or if you live in greater Minnesota, oftentimes because of transportation costs or other things, or if you don't have as much money as someone else – you do have more struggles getting your voice heard in court.  For the legitimacy of the court, and to make sure we're doing justice, that's something that I've paid a lot of attention to and want to continue to do. What can we do to make our courts more accessible to everybody in Minnesota so that they get their rights adjudicated fairly and justly.

Q:  So judges will be on ballots come November. Elections are often the places we don't know what to do with, how do you recommend voters make a decision when it comes to judges?

A:   I think one of the good things these days is the existence of the internet.  Most have a website that you can visit and most judges have some presence there where you can go and find out.  But it is a different thing because you're not voting for someone because of their stance on political issues. Judges don't take political positions in that sense. So I think the things that I've looked for in the past, is experience as a, as a judge… but more so experience in the legal field.  What’s the breadth of this person's experience? What are the cases they have argued before the court - the different types of cases they have handled? 

I've been a public defender in my life so I've dealt with the criminal law. I worked for 25 years with companies in Minnesota - large and small - representing them in litigation and also in regulatory types of matters. So that experience, I think, is important. And then looking at what other people say about the person's demeanors - are they fair? Are they ethical?   What does the bar association say - the group of lawyers in Minnesota.  They actually take a vote sometime in August or September, where they choose between the different candidates and the contested races and say who they would support. That's a pretty good objective test. So there are sources that you can go to but what you want is someone that's going to be fair. You want someone that has brought a breadth of experience that can bring that to the discussion, to their decisions. That’s going to be impartial - bring some wisdom to the cases. Those are the things that you're really looking for in a in a judge. That’s what I guess what I would, what I would say people should think about, and also just remember to turn over the ballot because judges are usually on the backside. So don't just stop after your president and Senator and state representative flip it over. So you can make sure that you're voting, pointing for the judges as well.

*please credit KAXE/KBXE - independent public media in northern MN when using excerpts of this interview.  Responses to our Meet the Candidates interviews can be left at 218-999-9876 or by email.

Heidi Holtan is KAXE's Director of Content and Public Affairs where she manages producers and is the local host of Morning Edition from NPR. Heidi is a regional correspondent for WDSE/WRPT's Duluth Public Television’s Almanac North.