Justice is not simply a result

An interview with the newest member of the Minnesota Supreme Court, Justice Natalie Hudson

By Jon Schmidt 

Justice Natalie HudsonGovernor Mark Dayton appointed Justice Natalie Hudson to the Minnesota Supreme Court on October 26, 2015. She had previously served for 13 years on the Minnesota Court of Appeals, to which she was appointed by Governor Jesse Ventura in 2002. Justice Hudson started her legal career as an attorney at the Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, Inc., and later joined Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi as an associate practicing in employment law and civil litigation. She was an assistant dean of student affairs at Hamline University School of Law. She was then appointed by Mayor James Scheibel to serve as the Saint Paul city attorney. Immediately prior to joining the court of appeals, Justice Hudson worked at the Minnesota Attorney General’s office, primarily in the Criminal Appellate Division. 

Justice Hudson brings a vast variety of experience to the Supreme Court. She is known as a smart, efficient, and pragmatic jurist, and, equally important, a kind person to litigants, colleagues, law clerks, and staff. I recently met with Justice Hudson to discuss the new job, her old job, and the judiciary.

Jon Schmidt: How would you compare the differences between the court of appeals and Supreme Court?

Justice Natalie Hudson: The type of cases the two courts hear is very similar, with the notable exception of the cases over which the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction: first-degree murder, tax court appeals, workers compensation court appeals, election disputes and attorney discipline matters. 

The case load and pace are very different. The Supreme Court generally hears oral arguments during the first two weeks of every month, typically hearing two arguments each day or one oral argument and one non-oral matter.
In contrast, the court of appeals generally hears oral arguments one day per week, with four orals and two non-orals on a given calendar. There is also one calendar per month that is exclusively a non-oral calendar. Both courts present unique challenges. With respect to the court of appeals, it is a high volume, error-correcting court that handles a wide range of cases of varying degrees of complexity. Unquestionably, the sheer volume of cases is the most daunting aspect to the work of that court. To that end, approximately 1,800-2,000 cases are filed with the court of appeals each year, and each judge typically authors 80-90 opinions per year­—all against a 90-day statutory time limit for disposition in each case. 

With respect to the Supreme Court, at first blush, two cases per setting may not sound like much, but the reality is much different than the perception. The cases typically involve multiple, complex legal issues, and the Court is often being asked to either clarify the law, extend the law, apply existing law to a new, often unforeseen scenario, or resolve a split within the lower courts. Many times, there are significant policy issues at stake as well. Briefing by the parties is extensive and there are often several amicus briefs, as well. The gravity of the issues and the knowledge that the Court is the court of last resort colors and influences each setting. Thus, it is two weeks of voluminous, intense reading and analysis.

There are some differences in the conference dynamics. While there is a natural camaraderie amongst such a small group, our conferences are more formal than those at the court of appeals. Again it is a function, at least in part, of being the court of last resort and the gravity of the issues. I enjoy the give and take with my colleagues and the exploration of each issue at great depth and from every conceivable angle. Of course, I come to conference prepared to discuss and analyze each case, but inevitably, I leave with a deeper understanding of the legal issues as a result of the input, probing and questioning of my colleagues. Assumptions—the parties’ as well as our own—are challenged and legal propositions are carefully scrutinized. We don’t always agree with one another, but the discussions are always collegial. Given that the seven of us work together day in and day out, the respect we accord one another is critical to the proper functioning of the court and the administration of justice. 

During the second half of the month, we have two settings of Special Term where we consider petitions for review and handle other administrative matters that arise as part of the court’s obligation to regulate the legal profession. Finally, and probably less obvious to the casual observer of the Supreme Court, are the many statewide committee and liaison assignments for which each justice is responsible. 

Schmidt: How do you think your professional and personal experiences have shaped your view of justice?

Hudson: Of course, as a judge I am first and foremost committed to and bound by the rule of law. Thus, my task is to apply the law to the facts before me. But judges are also interpreters of the law and we are tasked with applying the law evenly and fairly to every party that appears in our courts. We are aided greatly in these tasks by ensuring that our decision-makers represent the broad spectrum of our community. We are all products of our life experiences; none of us comes to the practice of law or the bench a blank slate. And it is the diversity of our backgrounds that brings a richness and depth to the decision-making process. Particularly on an appellate court, where decision-making is collaborative, that diversity of experience leads to a fuller debate and helps to ensure that all perspectives are explored, and that arguments and rationales are
filtered through many different lenses. 

I was privileged to begin my practice as a staff attorney at Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services. That experience brought home the reality that there was, and is, a persistent justice gap in Minnesota and this country. Approximately 26 percent of Minnesotans live at or below 200 percent of poverty – $47, 700 per year for a family of four. In 2014, Civil Legal Services could still only meet the need of one out of every three eligible clients. This is a fundamental access issue and as a profession, we must continuously fight the lull of indifference. 

In addition, as an African-American attorney, my personal and professional experiences include having received anonymous racist hate mail when I was the St. Paul city attorney. And like many women attorneys, I experienced my share of slights and rejection as a practicing attorney simply because I was a woman. One result of these experiences is the realization that various forms of discrimination still exist, and that people of good will must be ever-vigilant to ensure that our justice system treats everyone in a fair, respectful manner. 

Schmidt: What does justice mean to you?

Hudson: I strongly believe that justice is not simply a result; it is a process that must embody both the perception and the reality that all parties are treated fairly and respectfully, as well. That means things as simple as calling people by their proper names and truly listening to each party’s argument. Over the years, I have found that even unsuccessful litigants are often satisfied with the court system and the legal process if they feel they were “heard” and that the judge seriously considered their position. And thus, as judges, we should never lose sight of the fact that behind each legal issue we encounter are real, human lives–lives that will be greatly impacted by the decisions we make. 

Schmidt: What are the most pressing issues you see with the judiciary?

Hudson: The “silver tsunami” is having a significant impact on the state’s judiciary, just as it is in other parts of our society. Record numbers of judges are retiring as they reach the mandatory retirement age of 70. This presents challenges and opportunities. The challenge is the loss of experience and institutional knowledge that are so critical to addressing the complex issues brought into our courtrooms each day. But this challenge also affords the judiciary the opportunity to welcome new talent to the bench—judges who bring with them fresh ideas, fresh perspectives and an eagerness to tackle an ever-changing legal landscape. 

In addition, advancing technology will continue to be a challenge for the judiciary. Technology will always outpace the law, but we have made great strides over the last few years to move the court system from a paper-based institution to one based on electronic case records. As part of the broader eCourtMN initiative, eFiling and eService of court documents is now available in all 87 district courts, as well as the state’s appellate courts. We must continue these efforts in order to better serve not only the public, but the practicing bar, the law enforcement community, and other justice partners. 

Schmidt: How do you think Minnesota’s judiciary does with access to justice?

Hudson: Access to justice is a critical issue because it’s important that all Minnesota citizens are able to have their claims resolved in a fair and prompt manner, regardless of their financial circumstances. Minnesota’s judiciary has been deeply committed to this effort for many years and while there’s always more that can be done, Minnesotans can be proud of the many programs already in place that ensure access to our courts. The most recent example is a new self-help clinic at the Minnesota State Law Library in St. Paul that offers advice to self-represented litigants on filing an appeal with the Minnesota Supreme Court or the Minnesota Court of Appeals. On the third Thursday of each month, volunteer attorneys are present to offer advice on court deadlines, what papers to file, appellate briefs, and proper service of parties, among other things. The pilot clinic was started in January 2016 and is staffed by volunteer attorneys from the Minnesota State Bar Association Appellate Practice Section. This section has worked tirelessly over the last year with our state law librarian to make this important project a reality. This new clinic is in addition to the state-wide self-help center and the self-help workstations in each district courthouse. These efforts are critical to ensuring that justice is accessible to all Minnesotans.

Schmidt: What has surprised you most in your first few months on the Supreme Court?

Hudson: I was surprised by the administrative work load. Each justice is assigned as a liaison to several rules committees and/or task forces, in addition to liaison assignments to the respective judicial districts. These are important, substantive assignments that are integral to fulfilling the court’s responsibility to oversee and regulate the legal profession. 

Schmidt: Judge Myron Bright on the 8th Circuit loves the anecdote that the trial attorneys and judges are in the war. The appellate judges hide in the mountains and come down after the battle is over to shoot the survivors. Do you feel there is a disconnect between the trial court battles, procedures, keeping the dockets moving, etc., and the appellate courts?

Hudson: Judge Bright’s anecdote is amusing and I must confess that I had never heard it. We are blessed here in Minnesota to have an outstanding judiciary at every level. Our district court judges work extremely hard and deal with complex, often emotional issues, in addition to high caseloads. The day-to-day work they do is nothing short of extraordinary. I can say without qualification that there is a mutual respect between our district court judges and appellate judges. That said, because the jobs of a district court judge and an appellate judge are so different, it is inevitable that there will be the occasional “disconnect.” District court judges are primarily focused on running their courtrooms in a fair and efficient manner and deciding the matter that is immediately in front of them. In contrast, appellate judges are more focused on the applicable standard of review and whether the record supports the decisions of the fact-finder. In addition, appellate judges, especially on the Supreme Court, are also concerned with what effect a particular ruling will have on future cases, as well as how the rules we announce will affect the district courts and practicing attorneys who actually have to implement them. These are not mutually exclusive endeavors, but they are different “lenses,” if you will. 

In an ideal world, district court judges and appellate court judges would periodically trade places for a month. For obvious reasons, that is not a realistic solution. However, on occasion, some appellate judges have “shadowed” a district court judge for a period of time. I have done that myself and found the experience to be tremendously helpful in understanding the dynamics and stresses faced by our district courts. Ultimately, the key is to encourage the frank exchange of ideas and to keep the lines of communication open. In addition, as appellate judges we must continue to think carefully about our decisions in terms of the practical effects on the district courts and practicing bar. An effective means of accomplishing these goals is through continuing legal education conferences like the Annual Conference of Judges where we come together as a judicial family for training and the sharing of “best practices.” These and other opportunities, such as service on MSBA committees, allow us to bridge the gaps and reinforce our common goal: providing prompt, fair, accessible justice to the people of Minnesota. 

Schmidt: You are an extremely hard worker. What do you do to turn your mind off for a while?

Hudson: I enjoy spending time with my family. I also enjoy listening to all types of music – it’s a wonderful escape. I love animals, and I enjoy going to the zoo in the summer. I especially love dogs, although I don’t have one at the moment. I am also a novice gardener. It can be hard work, but I also find it relaxing and I love the beautiful results of my efforts. 

JON SCHMIDT is a shareholder at Briggs and Morgan, P.A., where he focuses on an appellate practice, commercial and transportation litigation. Jon’s pro bono work focuses on appeals from the program he helped establish between the Minnesota Appellate Public Defender Office and the Appellate Section of the Minnesota State Bar Association. Before joining Briggs, Jon clerked at the Minnesota Court of Appeals for Judge Natalie Hudson, and the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals for Judge Myron Bright. Jon lives in St. Paul with his wife (Judge Sara R. Grewing) and their two kids.