Q&A: Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison ’90
As part of a series of student, faculty, and alumni conversations marking Black History Month, Amirah Ellison, 1L, interviews her father, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison ’90.
AE: How are you processing the events of this past week?
KE: Last week, a young man by the name of Amir Locke died in a tragic shooting incident involving Minneapolis police. Because I have been drawn into the matter along with the Hennepin County attorney’s office—they’ve asked the Attorney General’s office to assist—I really am not in a position to comment. Under the rules of professional responsibility, prosecutors should refrain from making any statement which could in some way unduly influence a jury. But my heart is heavy. My heart goes out to Amir Locke’s family.
AE: Why did you seek out the office of the Attorney General?
KE:I used to be in Congress, as you know. I went to Congress when you were 10 years old. And you helped me get there. I will never forget that video you made at the State Fair.
AE: I remember that.
KE: After 12 years of being in Congress, I found that it was a very important job, I enjoyed the work, and I was honored to be there. But I concluded that I needed to go toward the front of the fight for justice—for economic justice, for criminal justice, for fair markets. As Attorney General, you can take bad landlords to court. You can take companies that steal wages to court. You can build a greater quality of justice and engage in criminal justice reform. And we have done that. We started an expungement clinic. I am on the pardon board, and we have pardoned a lot of people. We just got done civilly prosecuting people for wage theft and anti-trust violations. I feel closer to the solution.
AE: We are conducting this interview during Black History Month. Can you talk about what Black History has meant to you personally and professionally?
KE: Black History Month has always been a special time for me, and you will probably recall that when you were growing up, we would go to lectures and cultural events during this time. You don’t just know Black history because you are Black. You know it because you study it, and anybody of any color can study it. I believe that you cannot be intelligent about American history without having a strong grip on Black history. No matter what color you may be, you have got to understand that when the Constitution was written—the Constitution whose preamble said that “All men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life liberty and the pursuit of happiness”—you have got to know that when those words were written, Black people were considered 3/5th a person and could not possibly vote. This country, which professed freedom, liberty, and justice for all, went another hundred years after slavery with the Jim Crow system. African Americans stand as a living breathing example of how our country was not meeting its aspirations. In 1968 when the Fair Housing Act was passed, America entered into a brand-new phase of history—a multi-racial democracy. To this very minute, we are living in a multi-racial democracy, but it’s a struggle. When people attacked the Capitol on January 6th, they were waiving Confederate flags. We are still trying to help the country live up to its creed. So, to me if you understand Black history, you understand America. We have had some sad episodes, but we have also had some promising episodes because America did defeat slavery. Black troops helped America defeat the slavocracy and the Confederacy. And we did overcome Jim Crow segregation with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968 Fair Housing act. It is also true that Civil Rights movement of the 60s coincided with the Women’s rights movement, and the Gay rights movement, and the passing of the Older Americans Act in 1968. Black history went parallel—and even inspired—other movements for a greater offering of rights in America.
AE: I have always understood Black history and American history as one and the same. Growing up, I always felt like I had a really clear understanding of our own family history which, I think, has helped me understand American history.
KE: Its true. Grandpa Frank—Frank Martinez, your great-grandfather, my grandfather—played an active role in the Civil Rights movement. He was not on the sidelines; he was in it. When he was organizing Black voters in Natchitoches, Louisiana, they denied him gasoline and boycotted him. They threatened to kill him and harassed him when he was trying to organize Black voters. Your family has been part of the struggle for equal access to American society.
AE: What advice do you have for law students that could help us contextualize what we are learning in the classroom?
KE: A little bit of contextualization I will give you is that in Natchitoches, Louisiana, there were no hotels for Black people to stay. Walter White and Thurgood Marshall used to stay on Lee St. in a home built and owned by your great-grandmother and great-grandfather. That house still stands. Your great-grandfather was a leader in the NAACP, so they stayed at his house when they came into town.
AE: I did not know that.
KE: As you are studying the cases, always take a minute to figure out what was going on around the case. You may study Brown v. Board. What was happening around the country when it comes to school desegregation? What was happening in the economy? You should understand that Brown v. Board comes out of a dissent written by Judge Julius Waring. In another case that he presided over, Isaac Woodard, a Black veteran who served our country and was in uniform was blinded with a night stick by police. This judge was outraged by it. It began to radicalize him. Years later, he writes a stunning dissent in Briggs v. Elliot, and that dissent ends up being the majority opinion in Brown v. Board. If you don’t understand that history, then you really don’t get the full story. And every case you look at has a story. Today, if you study 1st Amendment law, you will come across a case called Sullivan v. NYT. In this case, an official in Alabama sued the New York Times because they published an advertisement in support of the Civil Rights movement. He sued the New York Times for defamation. Sullivan ended up winning, and Civil Rights community lost. They could have bankrupted the Civil Rights community using defamation law. But public officials have a reduced protection when it comes to defamation. That is where the doctrine of actual malice comes into the conversation. So here, again, Black history is shaping American law. Sullivan v. NYT is heavily cited, and a lot of people who cite that case or study it may not know connection to the Civil Rights movement.
AE: In Civil Procedure we recently learned that in the Dred Scott case, the court held that a person cannot be considered a state citizen without being a U.S. citizen. Meaning, formerly enslaved people cannot have state citizenship for the purposes for diversity jurisdiction. And that part of Dred Scott is still good law. I will admit that I didn’t draw any connection between Black History and Civ Pro before we learned that.
KE: That is a perfect example of what I am talking about. You find Black history in every single class you will take. And it really has an effect on our life here today.
AE: I wanted to end the interview with something that most people don’t know about you. Do you have any gardening tips that you want to share with the community?
KE: Well, we have found coffee grounds to have a beneficial effect on our plants.