Five cases that changed life in Minnesota

A writer to the newsroom complained today that there isn’t enough context in the coverage of the Sotomayor hearings; not enough examples of how the Supreme Court affects the lives of Minnesotans.

Given that the Court rules on constitutional issues, it’s fair to say that every decision has something to do with every Minnesotan, but here are five facts about life in Minnesota, shaped by the Supreme Court in recent decades.

1) Your kid doesn’t need your permission to get an abortion

The Legislature passed a law requiring both parents to agree to an abortion for a minor, ignoring that about half the kids in the state only lived with one parent. A Minneapolis gynecologist — Jane Hodgson — challenged the law. The Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling that the two-parent notification is unconstitutional. The case was decided by just one vote.

2) Native Americans can fish for walleye on Lake Mille Lacs despite state-imposed restrictions.

This was one of the most emotional issues in the early ’90s in Minnesota. Walleye were disappearing from Lake Mille Lacs and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources imposed restrictions. But the tribe sued in 1990 claiming the U.S. conveyed hunting and fishing rights to the tribe in 1837. The court agreed (MINNESOTA et al. v. MILLE LACS BAND OF CHIPPEWA INDIANS et al.). The restrictions were imposed only on non-Native Americans. The walleye came back. The case was decided by just one vote.

3) You can publish whatever you want. You can’t be censored.

The First Amendment got one of its biggest boosts, thanks to Jay M. Near, an “anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-black and anti-labor” publisher of the Saturday Press in Minneapolis. He contended a Jew was the biggest gangster in Minneapolis and the cops weren’t doing anything about it. The Minnesota Gag Law was used to make it a crime to publish or even work for a publication that was “malicious, scandalous and defamatory.”

It’s considered the first great censorship case before the Supreme Court, which killed censorship.

4) You can ask a candidate running for judge in Minnesota the same kind of questions the Senate Judiciary Committee is asking Judge Sotomayor.

This is a fairly recent case. The Minnesota Supreme Court’s canon of judicial conduct prohibits a candidate from announcing his or her views on disputed legal or political issues. Greg Wersal ran for office in 1998 and then filed suit against the standards, claiming it violated the First Amendment. The Supreme Court agreed in a 2002 decision. The issue was decided by a single vote.

5) Social organizations can’t exclude you because you’re a woman.

It wasn’t long ago — the ’80s — that associations like the Jaycees — refused to allow women to join. Two Minnesota chapters bucked the national association and let the women in. They were sanctioned by the national organization, which sued Kathryn Roberts of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, who was responsible for enforcing the Minnesota anti-discrimination law. In a unanimous ruling, the court said “making women full members would not impose any serious burdens on the male members’ freedom of expressive association.” After that decision, the era of the men-only club ended.