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Bad Science Made Her Do It; That Is Become a Supreme Court Justice

Judge Anne McKeig took time last week to answer a few questions from Indian Country Today about her path and about her thoughts on court diversity.

Anne McKeig grew up in the tiny town of Federal Dam, Minnesota, (population around 100) bordering the Leech Lake Ojibwe Reservation.

A descendant of the White Earth Ojibwe, she set her career path early (once dentistry was out), eventually receiving a bachelor’s degree from the College of St. Catherine in 1989 and graduating from Hamline University School of Law in 1992.

After law school, she joined the Hennepin County Attorney’s office in Minneapolis as an assistant attorney in the Child Protection Division, specializing in the Indian Child Welfare Act. During her time there, she also became a part-time staff attorney for the American Prosecutors Research Institute. She also joined the American Indian Bar Association.

In 2008, she was appointed to a judgeship and was elected after that. Since 2013, she has been the Family Court Presiding Judge in Minnesota’s Fourth Judicial District. On June 28 this year, she was appointed to become a state Supreme Court Justice.

RELATED: Historic: Native Woman Appointed to the Minnesota Supreme Court

The fact that McKeig’s first bench appointment was by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and her latest appointment to the Minnesota Supreme Court came from Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton shows an impressive span of support between the political party lines and a testament to confidence in her.

When she takes her new seat on the bench after Associate Justice Christopher Dietzen retires at the end of August, the Minnesota Supreme Court will have its second-ever majority female justices and first Native justice presiding.

Judge McKeig took time last week to answer a few questions from Indian Country Today about her path and about her thoughts on court diversity.

What drew you to law as a career? Was there anything about growing up in Federal Dam that influenced you in this direction (or what did you plan to grow up to be back then)?

I am not really sure. When I was in 9th grade, we had to do a project regarding our career choice. I chose to be a dentist and researched the job requirements. I then realized being a dentist required a lot of science study – and I was never very good at science. So I knew I needed to choose another path.

Since I enjoyed helping people – and was never afraid of a good argument – I decided I would be a lawyer. I can see now that I was influenced by both my parents, who were always helping someone in one way or another. My dad was a mechanic and never made much money because he would help anyone who needed it. He would say, “Pay me later,” or he would take something in trade. My mother, who was the director of Indian Education at Remer (Minnesota) High School for 30-plus years, was always helping a child in some way. Whether it was listening, giving a ride, a hug, lunch money (that we did not have); she would always do anything she could to help.

You have mentioned as an inspiration Judge Robert Blaeser, the first and longest-serving Native judge appointed in Minnesota and who is also from White Earth. You did not know him when he was appointed as a district court judge, but have you gotten to know him since? How do you feel knowing that you, too, as a Native woman, will be an inspiration now for girls and Native youth?

I was so lucky to have met Judge Blaeser. After his swearing-in, he eventually made his way to the juvenile court where he served not only as a judge but eventually as the presiding judge. He took an interest in mentoring me as a young Native lawyer in the Hennepin County Attorney’s office. He was truly invested in my future, and I so appreciated it.

I was not always easy to mentor as I was young, passionate and stubborn, and I am sure I thought I knew more than I did. He was patient but firm and hung in there with me throughout my career. We became close friends over time, and his support for me has never wavered. He was never afraid to tell me the truth, direct and to the point. When I was wrong, he told me. He really helped mold me into the professional I am today, and I am forever grateful.

As far as me being an inspiration, it is my hope and dream that someone will see in me what I saw in Judge Blaeser, and I intend to work hard to pay forward what he has done for me.

Early in your career with the Hennepin County Attorney’s office, you had a specialty in ICWA. Have you seen the benefits of ICWA in your role back then, and do you think recent national court decisions may be eroding it?

I may not have stayed in the child protection division without the work on ICWA cases. We formulated a really solid team and despite our disagreements, we all understood that everyone was working for the benefit of the best interest of the child. That looked different on occasion depending on one’s view but in the end, we settled the majority of those cases. That took real dedication, hard work and collective collaboration.

I saw through that work how influential and helpful the court could be in leading the charge to ensure that children were not lost in litigation. Judge Blaeser was also extremely influential in his capacity as the presiding judge.

The recent national court decisions are fact specific, and I do not believe they are eroding ICWA. The message that I would hope we take from those cases is that stakeholders need to comply with the provisions of ICWA from the beginning so that children do not get lost along the way. Litigation tears people apart and does nothing to bring people together. Working on ICWA cases for so many years, I know that compliance can be accomplished, but it takes dedication and a desire to do the right thing.

Do you have any thoughts on the larger impact of the provisions within the Violence Against Women Act allowing tribal courts to prosecute non-Native offenders on reservations? How significant is this legal tool, and are there other areas where similar recognition of the tribal courts could or should be recognized?

It is a very important step to have tribal courts treated equally to state courts. Many states across the country have worked tirelessly to accomplish equal recognition, though we have a long way to go.

Domestic violence is a very serious issue and one that needs particular attention as it has such a negative impact on families and often times is misunderstood. Statistics show it is a serious problem in our Native communities and thus it is important that tribal courts be given the tools and the power to address this issue.

There are many other areas where our justice system would benefit from having tribal courts recognized as equal with state courts. One of my hopes is that someday tribal court will have equal access to court information systems and that we have complete sharing of information between state and tribal courts so that we are not working in silos but are working side-by-side. We do not have the resources to duplicate efforts.

It’s been noted that when you take your seat on the Minnesota Supreme Court in August that it will have a majority of women justices for the first time in 25 years and you will be the first Native member on that court. Given that justice is supposed to be “blind,” why is diversity on the bench so important?

Without diversity, the judicial system would not reflect the communities we serve and, more importantly, those who come before us. We all bring our personal histories with us and, in some way, I suspect it seeps into our decision making. Certainly, that is true for me. The ability to look at issues through a different lens, or a lens that is familiar with a litigant, brings humanity to our decisions. I think there is nothing more comforting than walking into a courtroom and seeing someone who looks like you and who may have a better understanding of your experiences and where you come from.

In a related question, what did you think of Donald Trump’s charges that a Mexican-American judge was biased against him because of his heritage?

As judges, we have to, at times, examine our decisions to make sure that we are not basing it on our personal feelings. I know that I have had to do that. It is not always easy, but it is something we learn to do as lawyers and judges. Our job is to search for the truth and to find justice. I think the judiciary works very hard in treating all people fairly.

Your heritage is noted as “White Earth descendant.” Can you tell me a little about your family background? Are you enrolled at White Earth?

My paternal grandfather was raised in Ogema on the White Earth reservation. He was one of 14 children and spoke fluent Ojibwe all his life. He attended Indian Boarding school at Morris, was a brakeman for the Soo Line and a veteran of World War I. My father was an enrolled member of the White Earth Nation, and was born in Onigum and raised in Federal Dam.

My paternal grandmother was Bohemian and my mother is Polish. Thus I do not have the required blood quantum to be a fully enrolled member of the White Earth Nation. Several of my cousins, who have the same blood quantum as me, are enrolled members because they were born prior to 1963, when federal pressure came down for the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and White Earth to establish a blood-quantum rule. Therefore I use the term “descendant” out of respect for enrolled members. In my heart, I am Native, regardless of how much blood is running through my veins.

What has been the most rewarding part of your career so far?

I am very proud of the work that I did in child protection. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman allowed me to be creative and gave me the time to go out to the reservations to build relationships that had been lost. That allowed for us to set up a very strong infrastructure on how to best handle ICWA cases. That system is still there today, and I have been gone for over eight years. Children are our most important resource in this country, and we all have to care about what happens to them. We cannot leave it to a few professionals who make it their life’s work. It is too important. It is hard work, but our communities need to be educated and care about all of the children surrounding them, not just their own.