Four Minnesota Law alums are serving—or have recently served—on the top rung of the court systems of three states
Minnesota Law graduates have made their marks as leaders in the law, business, politics, and public service. Four are serving—or have recently served—on the bench of their respective states' highest court.
Three are in the Midwest—Minnesota Supreme Court Justices Natalie Hudson ’82 and G. Barry Anderson ’79, who work in St. Paul—and South Dakota Supreme Court Justice Janine Kern ’85, who serves primarily in Rapid City. The fourth, the late New York Court of Appeals Judge Paul Feinman ’85, served in New York City until he stepped down from the bench on March 23 due to ill health. (Editor’s Note: Judge Feinman passed away on March 31 as this article was being prepared for publication. The quotes from him are taken from an interview with him for this piece several weeks prior to his resignation from the bench.)
Each of these four top jurists shared different memories of their time at Minnesota Law.
Kern discovered the intellectual rigor she was looking for. “I found it to be very broadening,” she said. “The professors were brilliant. They had a sense of humor and they engaged the students.”
Anderson says the law student basketball teams on which he played weren’t always the most popular in the league. “I think the feeling was that the lawyers tended to argue a lot,” he said. “I’ll take the Fifth Amendment on that.”
Feinman recalled visiting the University campus for the first time in May, “when everything was green.” A handwritten note on his admissions letter said, “The warmth of your reception will more than make up for a few cold days.” He encountered were more than a few cold days, of course.
Hudson said she wouldn’t want to go to law school again. “But, my goodness, I am so glad I did and that I persevered. The U has given me so much, and the training I got there was exceptional and has afforded me the opportunity to be where I am.”
Diversifying the Bench
Hudson worked in the Minnesota Attorney General’s office for eight years, appearing frequently before the Minnesota Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. She began to consider the bench after observing that most judges at oral arguments were white and that the lived experiences—personal and professional—of people of color were largely absent from the proceedings.
Hudson applied for the next Court of Appeals opening and was appointed in 2002. She served there until her 2015 appointment to the Supreme Court.
“When you think back about our history as a country, you quickly realize that the law has impacted people of color—and Blacks in particular—in profound ways, and often negatively,” Hudson said. “But we’ve had very little role in the development of the law. We’ve just been the recipients of it. That voice in Minnesota and in many states was just not there.”
Such representation is even more vital to ensuring trust and confidence in the judiciary, Hudson said, after the unrest and calls for racial equity and social justice that followed the death of George Floyd.
“The racial reckoning we’re in now highlights the importance of a judiciary that reflects the communities we serve,” Hudson observed.
At Minnesota Law, Hudson said, she was one of 10 first-year minority students who saw no faculty of color when they arrived. (Alex Johnson, who is Black and later would become dean of the Law School, joined the faculty during Hudson’s 3L year).
The school’s then head librarian, Marvin Anderson, who is Black, offered support, Hudson says. One faculty member in particular—the late Professor Donald Marshall—welcomed students of color and maintained an open-door policy for discussing issues of concern, she adds.
Hudson honed her writing skills on the Minnesota Law Review and Quaere, the former student newspaper, preparing her for writing briefs and judicial opinions.
Hudson applied to the Law School after earning an English degree at Arizona State University. Her family moved from Missouri to Minneapolis and then Roseville in the late 1960s, so the nationally ranked University was nearby.
Hudson began her legal career at Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, practiced employment law and civil litigation at a private firm, and worked in student affairs at the former Hamline University School of Law and as a St. Paul city attorney before joining the attorney general’s office, where she served in the criminal appellate division.
Solving problems respectfully
When Janine Kern was in elementary school, she often spent her after-school hours sitting in the lobby of her father and grandfather’s law office in Lake Andes, South Dakota, a small town near the Missouri River.
Farmers, businesspeople, and others sought advice on legal concerns or taxes from her grandfather and father, who later served as state’s attorney and circuit judge.
“That really inspired me to consider a career in the law [and] led ultimately to my desire to serve on the bench, helping people solve their problems in a respectful, meaningful way,” Kern said.
The Law School’s reputation for academic excellence and proximity to family appealed to Kern, who had earned a political science degree at Arizona State. Faculty members including Ann Burkhart, John Cound, Barry Feld, Catharine MacKinnon, and Gerald Torres made lasting impressions, as did Kern’s experience representing inmates through the legal assistance program.
“The brilliant and diverse class that we had was a gift,” Kern said. “Our class members built wonderful careers and changed the world for the better. The powerful group of professors was very inspiring. Dean Bob Stein ’61 was a remarkable leader. I am grateful for the experience and enjoyed it all.”
Committed to public service, Kern began her career as an assistant South Dakota attorney general. Working in the appellate division, Kern gained experience practicing before the state supreme court, preparing her for her 1996 appointment as a circuit judge in Rapid City. She was appointed to the South Dakota Supreme Court in 2014.
“Serving as one of five justices is a welcome transition after 18 years as a circuit court judge,” said Kern.
Kern has served on the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice and on the state Council of Juvenile Services, where she pursued juvenile justice reform.
Access to fair and impartial courts is a continuing priority for Kern. “The racial justice dialogue that has occurred throughout 2020 has heightened awareness of the importance of striving for and maintaining a court system that ensures justice for everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or any other characteristic,” Kern said. “The movement has brought the issue of systemic racism and unequal treatment to the forefront of the local, state, and national stage, prompting critical conversations about how to improve the justice system.”
Serving the public interest
Working in the public interest inherently appealed to Paul Feinman, who served as one of seven members of New York’s highest court from 2017 through his resignation in March 2021.
As a Columbia University undergraduate, the Long Island, New York, native experienced the law as a “helping profession,” assisting people applying for benefits through a university legal internship program.
The happiest graduates Feinman knew were those who had gone on to be public interest lawyers. That group included a friend whom Feinman joined in what would be his first job, at the Legal Aid Society of Nassau County, New York.
But few opportunities other than public service were then open to Feinman—who would later become the first openly gay judge confirmed to the New York Court of Appeals.
“I’ll be very honest—my options were somewhat limited because I was definitely an out gay man,” Feinman said.
Being out wasn’t easy, added Feinman, who got his Minnesota Law degree at the height of the AIDS crisis.
When he joined classmates seeking to launch and get funding for a Gay and Lesbian Law Student Association (GALSA), student activities leaders asked for members’ names. GALSA refused, and later got established with administration support. (Today at the Law School, OutLaw serves as an affinity group for LGBTQIA+ students).
The placement office, Feinman said, advised him—and, he believes, many others—to have an “out” resume and a “closeted” one.
Working in Legal Aid roles in appeals and criminal defense and clerking seven years for Justice Angela Mazzarelli of New York’s Supreme Court (which serves as a trial court, while the Court of Appeals is the state’s top appellate court) drove his interest in serving on the bench.
Feinman, who had been president of New York’s LGBT Bar Association, became the first openly gay man to win a contested primary, earning a seat on the Civil Court of the City of New York in 1996.
In 2014, Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed Feinman to one of New York’s four intermediate appellate courts. Feinman had won election to the Supreme Court in 2007 and received unanimous Senate confirmation after Cuomo nominated him to the Court of Appeals in 2017.
Last year, Feinman was appointed chair of New York’s Justice Task Force, which he said has been examining racial disparities in the justice system “before George Floyd, well before these issues started exploding in the national consciousness.” (For more on Judge Feinman’s life and legacy, see tribute below.)
Returning to the courtroom
G. Barry Anderson became a lawyer to do trial work. As he spent more time reviewing abstracts and drafting deeds—and less trying cases—Anderson began considering a move that would take him back to the courtroom by way of the bench.
The time was right, with Anderson in his mid-40s and a vacancy on the Minnesota Court of Appeals. After talking it over with family, Anderson applied for that seat and got sworn in to the appeals court in 1998. He served there until his appointment to the Supreme Court in 2004.
“The opportunity to work on some really complicated, interesting issues that have real-life consequences for people is an opportunity that any lawyer would appreciate, and I’m grateful for it,” Anderson said.
Anderson, who grew up on the north end of Mankato, Minnesota, had been interested in the law since childhood. He was just 11 when his father died.
Anderson took the same path to a legal career as his uncle and role model Bernhard “Pete” LeVander ’39, brother to former Gov. Harold Levander.
Like Pete LeVander, Anderson went to Gustavus Adolphus College, majoring in political science and history.
Anderson began his law classes in Fraser Hall on the University’s East Bank campus. “There is nothing more Paper Chase or law school stereotype that you could ever experience than the Fraser Hall library,” Anderson said.
Halfway through his studies, classes moved to the new Law School building, which opened on the West Bank campus in 1978. Defense and prosecution work in the misdemeanor law clinic would be useful to Anderson after graduation.
More comfortable in Greater Minnesota, Anderson worked at a firm in Fairmont before moving to Hutchinson. In his 15 years there, he handled such matters as family law, public defense, business law, personal injury, and insurance defense. He served as city attorney of Hutchinson from 1987 to 1998 while also representing private clients.
Justices, of course, read newspapers and watch television, and are aware of the tragic and challenging events of the past year.
“We’re sensitive to and appreciate the complex historical, legal, social, cultural, and educational issues that are tied up in all of this,” Anderson said. “I wouldn’t say we’re not influenced by events, but we try to keep in mind that our goal is to decide the questions that are before us and to do that as objectively and fairly as we can.”
Todd Nelson is a Lake Elmo, Minnesota-based freelance writer.
In Remembrance of Judge Paul G. Feinman ’85, New York Court of Appeals
Paul G. Feinman ’85, the first openly LGBT judge to serve on New York’s highest court, passed away on March 31.
Feinman, 61, had a judicial career that spanned 25 years before he stepped down from the New York Court of Appeals on March 23 due to his health. Before joining the Court of Appeals bench in 2017, Feinman sat on the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court’s First Department in Manhattan.“Judge Feinman lived a great life in service, starting as a legal aid lawyer followed by 25 years in the judiciary and concluding with his historic appointment to the New York Court of Appeals. He will long be remembered as a brilliant jurist and a legal pioneer. As the first openly LGBTQ judge on New York’s highest court, he broke barriers and opened doors of opportunity,” said Garry W. Jenkins, dean and William S. Pattee Professor of Law.
“A deeply dedicated advocate of the Law School, Judge Feinman hired and mentored our students, frequently spoke at events, and loved Minnesota Law gatherings, especially the chance to recruit prospective students by telling his story of how Minnesota Law changed his life,” Jenkins continued. “He was as loyal a friend as the Law School has ever had. We were enormously fortunate to have his friendship, support, and engagement.”
Before taking the bench, Feinman served as the principal court attorney to Judge Angela M. Mazzarelli in New York’s Appellate Division and as a staff attorney for The Legal Aid Society, Criminal Defense Division, in New York County. He began his legal career as a staff attorney for the Appeals Bureau of the Legal Aid Society of Nassau County, Long Island.
Feinman was one of the principal speakers at the Law School’s 6th annual MLK Convocation, “Breaking the Dam Against Social Progress,” last January. There are many ways to change society with a legal education, he noted at that event. “Everyone can do something.You can’t do it all but you can do something.”