Minnesota Capitol from Ramsey County Law Library

The Minnesota Capitol is visible from the law library

Last weekend the Minnesota Capitol hosted its open house to celebrate its recent extensive renovation and remodel project yet some might be surprised that the 112 year old building is actually Minnesota’s third capitol.  The history and timeframe of Minnesota’s capitols has some interesting parallels to the history of the Ramsey County courthouses. Each has had three buildings, with the present ones standing apart from the rest for their architectural significance and their longetivity. Similarly, their second buildings are both noteworthy for their short lifespans due to dissatisfaction of their users.  You might recall that Minnesota’s original capitol burned to the ground in 1881.  Built in 1854, it had become a patchwork of expansions by the end of its 27-year life.  The second capitol is the one probably most forgotten, for it served in its original capacity for a rather short time. Indeed, the state began planning the third capital in 1893, only ten years after the second one was dedicated.  The third-and-present capitol was completed and occupied in 1905, leaving the second vacated after just 22 years.  Ironically, this second building served another thirty-plus years as meeting space, storage, and parking until its demolition in 1937. This story of short-lived usefulness is similar to the second Ramsey County courthouse, which at least managed to serve its original function for 43 years before it was replaced and demolished.

Why such a short lifetime for a state capitol?  Granted, it had been hastily built, what with the need to replace what had been lost in the fire. The budget for the new capitol was also very lean and strict, with a misdemeanor penalty for exceeding the budget. (Never mind whether or not the finished project would last through the next generation.) Apparently, it was the faulty ventilation that led the push to replace this nearly-new building so shortly after its construction.  It was also postulated that the second capitol was insufficient in that it was little more than a “glorified county courthouse,” and inadequate to represent the grand state that many Minnesotans felt their state was becoming. (Decide for yourself if the capitol then looked like the county courthouse  located down the street.)

Minnesota’s trial-and-error history of building a capitol that could function and inspire through the ages is all the more reason to celebrate this recent renovation project.  If you missed the festivities, you can always take a tour or check out the excellent restoration photos.  Alternatively, track down the new book Our Minnesota State Capitol by Denis P. Gardner.

 
The very beginnings of the courthouse! (Courtesy of the MN Historical Society)

The very beginnings of the courthouse! (Courtesy of the MN Historical Society)

You may not have time to visit a museum during your workday, but courthouse employees are often delighted to discover the what lies on the other floors of the building.  We welcome these resident visitors to the law library, where they can appreciate historical and architectural details here, as well as the fantastic judge portrait collection.   Stunning though the library space is, however, it is only the frosting on the cake of this this historic architectural confection.  Indeed, for those who have never visited, entering the courthouse itself can feel like stepping onto a vintage movie set.  This is why a formal tour is probably the best way to discover some of the lesser-known details of this building, and can easily be arranged by contacting the Ramsey County Historical Society.

The tour includes information on the historical beginnings of the courthouse.  This present-day courthouse basically resulted from a general dissatisfaction with the previous courthouse, which was dedicated in 1889.  Perhaps local leaders felt slightly embarrassed when a grand jury remarked in 1925 that the then-36-year-old courthouse was “antiquated, inconvenient, and an architectural mistake.” Surely the pressure was then on to build something not only beautiful for the community, but also something functional and timeless for future generations.  After much planning and construction, the final result was our current courthouse, which was dedicated on November 21, 1932. (See this write-up of the festivities held that day.)  Indeed this building has survived well beyond its novelty stage, as it was inducted into the National Register of Historical Places in 1983.  (See also the original nomination form.)

What often gets overlooked in the courthouse is the impressive list of artistic masters showcased here.  To start, the building was designed by Holabird & Root of Chicago and Thomas Ellerbe & Co. of St. Paul.  Holabird and Root were masters then of what we call art deco, the style famous for sleekness of form and simplicity of ornament.  The actual construction was performed by Foley Brothers, Inc. of St. Paul.  The most obvious and familiar of the art installations is the onyx Indian God of Peace by Carl Milles, but fewer people may know that the actual hands-on carving was done by local St. Paul stonecutter John Garatti and his crew.  The exterior stone decorations are the work of Lee Lawrie, who was the most successful American architectural sculptor of his time.  (See this fantastic article about his work.)  There are also the six bronze elevator doors which were made by Albert Stewart.  The city council chambers feature murals which were painted by John W. Norton.  For quick reference see this handy brochure of the artistic features throughout the courthouse and the people behind them.

Unfortunately, these walls can’t talk, so sign up for a tour to hear what they would tell you if they could!

 

For Women’s History Month, let’s consider an oddly sexist chapter in our local past. As this blog has pointed out before, our state and community have not always been so progressive and forward-thinking as we may like to think.  In this particular chapter, the St. Paul City Council had passed Ordinance No. 8604 back in 1945, which prohibited women (except licensees, wives, or managers if the licensee was serving in the military) from working as bartenders.  (One can only speculate as to the council’s motives, but V-E Day had been declared only three days earlier.)  Clara Anderson had worked as a bartender at the Frederic Hotel in St. Paul for nine years, but was barred from continuing due to this ordinance.  Ramsey District Court Judge Carlton McNally denied her request for a temporary injunction to delay operation of the ordinance, which Ms. Anderson claimed was unconstitutionally discriminatory.  In the resulting case of Anderson v. City of St. Paul et al., the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of the ordinance in a tight 4-3 decision The Court noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had previously held that selling intoxicating liquor for beverage purposes was not a right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.  But it also applied the standard Fourteenth Amendment equal protection litmus test for discrimination, holding that the council need only meet the standard of having a “rational basis” in making its gender-based distinction, and that it had so met this need.

This case illustrates an earlier interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment and its equal protection clause where gender is concerned. The U.S. Supreme Court wouldn’t establish a heightened scrutiny standard against gender discrimination until Craig v. Boren, wherein the Court struck down an Oklahoma statute allowing 18 year-old women to purchase 3.2 beer, but not 18 year-old men.  Offending Ordinance No. 8604 has since been stricken from the books, for St. Paul Ordinance Sec. 183.01 now declares that “…[t]he public policy of Saint Paul is to foster equal opportunity for all to obtain employment, education, real property, public accommodations, public services, contract and franchise without regard to their race, creed, religion, sex, sexual or affectional orientation, color, national origin, ancestry, familial status, age, disability, marital status or status with regard to public assistance, and strictly in accord with their individual merits as human beings.”

Attorney Don Lewis

Attorney Don Lewis

The American Bar Association has designated “The Fourteenth Amendment: Transforming American Democracy” as this year’s Law Day theme.  At this time we are pleased to announce that our own Law Day CLE event will take place on May 4 at 3:00 PM here in the Court House in partnership with the Ramsey County Bar Association (RCBA)We are extra-pleased to announce that Minneapolis attorney Don Lewis will speak on Equal Protection of the Laws: The Journey from Jim Crow to Gay Marriage.  Mr. Lewis is no stranger to the Second Judicial District, having grown up in St. Paul and recently serving as a special prosecutor for the Ramsey County Attorney’s office.  Visit the RCBA website for more information, then mark your calendars for this engaging event!

 
Reporters at the Minnesota State Law Library


Some of these early reporters at the Minnesota State Law Library show fire damage.

For Minnesotans, March 1, 1881 is perhaps a “day that will live in infamy,” for it was on this date that the Minnesota Capitol burned to the ground.  And although though the law librarian profession has no official hero or mascot, this date marks the true story of someone who might be deserving of such an honor.

This disaster took place toward the very end of the legislative session, when both the House and Senate were in late evening sessions trying to get legislation wrapped up.  This was likely why no one had noticed that the outside common areas had filled with flames.  Someone hollered a fire alert to the Senate, but the House only got the message after a flaming ember fell down from the ceiling.  Nearly 300 people managed to escape by a single narrow stairway, while others had to escape via windows with ladders and ropes. The entire story is dramatically captured in this old article from the Minneapolis Tribune, reprinted in the Star Tribune.

Predictably, many books and irreplaceable records were lost in this fire. “The most serious loss…is the state library, which contained 12,580 volumes. But a few lucky books did survive, due to the heroism of a one-armed janitor named Charles Chappel.  He hauled loads of books out of the burning building in his single arm.  When a falling beam hit him in the head he grabbed one last armful and finally left the building for good.  Unfortunately, little information about Mr. Chappel survives today.  With the help of ancestry.com, a federal census report from 1880 lists a 26-year-old Chas E. Chappel that was marked as “maimed, crippled, or otherwise disabled.”  Another from 1920 lists a 76-year-old Charles E. Chappel living in St. Paul that worked as superintendant of the State Capitol.  Though it’s very likely, it cannot be stated with absolute certainty that these records refer to our heroic book rescuer. Nonetheless, today we can give a moment of appreciation for this unsung champion of what was probably Minnesota’s earliest government law library.

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Additional Sources:

Darrell Ehrlick, It Happened in Minnesota (Twodot, 2008).

Ben Welter, Minnesota Mayhem:  A History of Calamitous Events, Horrific Accidents, Dastardly Crime & Dreadful Behavior in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes (The History Press, 2012).

 

 

Slavery in Minnesota – The Eliza Winston Story

Boat on RiverYou and your neighbors might have your political differences, but try and imagine how challenging it would have been to finesse different outlooks on slavery back in 1860. Imagine further the awkwardness if you were a staunch abolitionist and your neighbor’s business brought Southern guests to your community with their slaves in tow.  Remember that the case behind the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott ruling three years earlier had involved an army surgeon who kept his slave at hand while serving at Minnesota’s Fort Snelling. Indeed, the Dred Scott  holding that slaves were not entitled to their freedom despite residency in a free state had opened up a new Minnesota tourist industry geared to Southerners seeking to enjoy cooler summers in northern states.  African American History Month is a good time to look at an incident in Minnesota’s history that illustrates both the tense political differences of the day, as well as how public opinion is often at odds with official law and policy.

Back in 1860 the city of St. Anthony was home not only to staunch abolitionists, but also to Winslow House, a popular summer destination for Southerners.  Minnesota’s three-year-old constitution barred slavery, yet many of its citizens didn’t see this as cause to interfere with the property rights of visitors.  So with this casual attitude and the recent Dred Scott ruling, Southerners frequently traveled up the Mississippi River to enjoy Minnesota’s mild summer climate.  That year the Richard Christmas household had traveled from Mississippi with their house slave, Eliza Winston, to stay at Winslow House.  During her stay, Winston met local abolitionists through her acquaintance with a free African American couple.  One of these abolitionists later filed a legal complaint asserting that Winston was being “restrained of her liberty by her master.” Meanwhile, the Christmas household had moved from Winslow House to a Lake Harriet cabin in Minneapolis. That’s where the Hennepin County Sheriff found Winston, who indicated to him that she wanted to be free.  Winslow was then brought to the Hennepin County Courthouse where Judge Vanderburgh heard Winston’s testimony, and then ruled in her favor.  Meanwhile, angry mobs had gathered in and around the courthouse, and began migrating into the community and storming the homes of local abolitionists.  Winston managed to escape the crowds, but ultimately had to leave Minnesota for her safety.  And as local business owners had feared, the Winston case did indeed slow Southern tourism to Minnesota.  (The Civil War’s eruption the following year would effectively make such river tourism a non-issue.)

The Winston case revealed some interesting twists in Minnesota’s early political climate.  Even though the state constitution forbade slavery, business interests often benefited from trade with Southern slaveholders.  Additionally, Minnesotans could be quick to form angry mobs.   And whereas changing the law can be a lofty and idealistic pursuit, changing public opinion is usually a much grittier undertaking. Such task becomes even more challenging where profit motives stand against wished-for change.  Finally, one must ask how “free” was Ms. Winston if she was forced to leave the free state of Minnesota.  This story and numerous such observations are presented in this article by Dr.  William Green, published in Minnesota History magazine.

 

 

Remembering the Happy Warrior

Casket leaving Minnesota State Capitol

Casket leaving Minnesota State Capitol (courtesy MN Historical Society)

Once upon a time at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, a young Midwestern mayor catapulted himself into history with his passionate speech urging the party to adopt a strong civil rights platform.  He drew a stark political division by stating that the time had come “…for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of state’s rights and walk forthrightly in the bright sunshine of human rights.”  The result was a mass walkout by the southern “dixicrat” faction and its long-term political after-effects.  This Friday it will be 38 years since one of the most influential leaders of the twentieth century died. He was laid to rest 3 days later on a bitterly cold January day.

Hubert Horatio Humphrey started out as the mayor of Minneapolis, elected to that office in 1945.  Three years later he was elected to the Senate in 1948 on the wind of his earth-moving speech.  Humphrey’s positions earned him some hostility from his party’s more conservative senators, and he came to accept the guidance of fellow senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas.  Johnson was not an easy guy to work with, especially after the Johnson-Humphrey presidential ticket was overwhelmingly elected in 1964.  As Johnson’s vice-president, Humphrey had the thankless job of selling the unpopular Vietnam War escalation to the American public.  Humphrey himself received the 1968 Democratic nomination for president, but would narrowly lose to Richard Nixon in the general election.  Humphrey went back to teaching at the University of Minnesota and Macalester College for the next two years.  Still restless for the public life, he sought and won election to the Senate in 1970 following the retirement of Senator Eugene McCarthy.  But he secretly struggled with bladder cancer for years before he died on January 13, 1978.

Humphrey’s public career may have started in Minneapolis, but its formal conclusion was a Saint Paul event.  After laying in state in our nation’s capital, his body returned to Minnesota and lay in state at the Minnesota Capitol prior to his funeral at the House of Hope Presbyterian Church.  It was attended by 43 members of the Senate, with the eulogy delivered by President Jimmy Carter.  (You can listen to this funeral service live.) This day happened to coincide with Minnesota’s cold winter season, and the temperature never got above zero that day.

Humphrey’s wife Muriel served the remainder of his senate term, but did not seek another.  During the 2012 dedication of his statue on the Minnesota Capitol grounds, Bill Clinton credited Humphrey’s 1948 speech as the catalyst behind the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the election of Barack Obama.

 

Toasting Wine GlassesThe time for holiday cheer is near, when we raise our glasses to a joyful time of year. And if our holiday toasts contain alcohol, someone will need to make a trip to the local liquor store, which in Minnesota cannot be on a Sunday.  Yes, the backup plan is often an emergency run to Wisconsin to buy the goods.  This year, however, Christmas and New Years both fall on Sundays, making it impossible to find a last-minute solution across the state border.  Minnesota is one of 12 states that ban Sunday liquor sales, as can be seen on the first map at this page.  Being surrounded by states that allow Sunday liquor sales, one could argue that Minnesota’s law is an act of taxation goodwill to its neighbors.  After all, here is one day a week that neighboring states can collect liquor taxes from Minnesotans. (Here’s looking at you, Wisconsin.)

Minnesota’s ban on Sunday liquor sales goes back all 158 of its years The argument against such law is consumer convenience, of course. The argument for them is that small, locally owned liquor stores can compete better by having a day where they don’t have to staff the store and still stay competitive. (Meaning: Would you keep shopping at Bob’s Booze Barn if you could get exactly what you wanted on your Sunday grocery run to Trader Joe’s?) We can expect the issue to arise yet again with the commencement of the new legislative session, and House Speaker Kurt Daudt believes this time it will pass.

Minnesota holds special prominence in the history of regulating alcohol consumption.  Remember that Minnesota congressman Andrew Volstead authored the legislation that would eventually become the Prohibition Amendment, which is why it was named the Volstead Act.  Volstead lost his congressional seat in 1922. Prohibition spanned from 1920 to 1933, ands after its repeal Minnesota created its own Liquor Control Department in 1933 to enforce its Liquor Control Act.  The department employed 12 agents in its first year, during which time Minnesota still had many dry counties, and alcohol bootlegging was a major enforcement concern.  Ironically, prohibition years also highlighted Minnesota with the production of Minnesota 13 by Stearns County farmers.  This was a distilled corn whiskey (i.e. “moonshine”) that was renowned and coveted across the nation.

 

cigarettesLast week we learned of the passing of former Judge Kenneth Fitpatrick, who served the Ramsey district bench from 1986 to 1998. Looking back, Judge Fitzpatrick might share the same fate as the late Judge Olin Lewis in that his page in history will forever be that of the presiding judge of a history-changing trial. The case of State of Minnesota v. Philip Morris alleged a 50-year conspiracy to defraud America about the hazards of smoking, to stifle development of safer cigarettes, and to target children as new customers.  Called the largest lawsuit in Minnesota history, the 1998 trial ended in a settlement agreement of roughly 6.6 billion dollars.  This guts of this trial essentially boiled down to the discoverability of over 30,000 sensitive corporate documents, and Judge Fitzpatrick made historical rulings which forced the disclosure of said documents.

R.J. Reynolds lawyers stated that they felt forced into the settlement by what they considered unfair court rulings and a biased judge, but these rulings were upheld all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  And if jurors are to be appreciated for their fundamental role in our justice system, the 15-week sacrifice of the tobacco jurors should be noted. Then-Chief Judge Lawrence Cohen (also recently deceased) lobbied the Minnesota Legislature to pay the tobacco jurors lump sums for their hardship.  Judge Fitzpatrick himself retired shortly after the long and stressful trial, citing health reasons.

Much has changed when it comes to tobacco consumption and marketing since the time of this trial, which wasn’t so long ago.  You might actually remember the hip and edgy Joe Camel ads gracing billboards and magazine pages well into the nineties.  Bars and restaurants at one time not only permitted smoking, but encouraged it with the availability of cigarette vending machines (which bore warning signs not to purchase them if you were under 18).  Even the recent restorations of the judge portraits involved tedious removal of yellow tobacco film from the canvasses, as smoking was once permitted and common in the law library.

 
Central light rail station

One of Minnesota’s earliest legal hangings happened here.

Now that Brendan Dassey’s murder conviction has been overturned, it is timely that another overturned murder conviction comes into the news. This one, however, will not and indeed cannot end as Dassey’s apparently has. The 1944 case of George Stinney is not well-known, probably overshadowed by headlines of the war at the time. It started when fourteen-year-old George was herding his family’s milk cow in rural part of South Carolina, when two white girls happened by and asked young George about local flower picking possibilities. When the girls went missing, George joined the search party and revealed that he had seen them the previous day. As soon as the girls’ murdered remains were found, George went on record as being the last to see them alive. So when George’s parents were away from home that day, officials came and took away George and his brother.  (His frightened sister watched from a chicken coop she was hiding in.) The officials whisked George into an interrogation, and emerged one hour later claiming that he had confessed to the murders. George was immediately transported to Columbia, SC where he was executed. The details of his electrocution are heart-wrenching, as he weighed only 95 pounds and was too small for the electric chair accessories. Stinney’s entire legal proceedings transpired over only 83 days. Though Stinney’s conviction was overturned in 2014 on grounds that his confession was false and coerced, his case is emblematic of the skewed justice that was typically experienced by black Americans in the Jim Crow South. Last week we learned that lawyers are currently planning to file a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Stinney’s surviving family.

Think hurried executions following convictions based on unsupported evidence could never happen in our fair community? One of Minnesota’s earliest executions left many doubts as to the subject’s actual guilt. Ann Bilansky was convicted in 1859 of murdering her husband with arsenic. The evidence brought against her was largely circumstantial, and consisted mostly of testimony from a witness with questionable credibility.  Numerous petitions for Bilansky’s commutation were submitted to Governor Ramsey.  Even the prosecutor himself wrote the day before her scheduled execution that he had come to experience “grave and serious doubts” about Bilansky’s guilt. Nonetheless her execution was carried out publicly at Cedar and Fifth Streets (now the Central Station of the light rail), with about 100 spectators in attendance. She maintained her innocence until the end, proclaiming that she would find “justice in heaven.” With the 2016 election season cranking up, it’s noteworthy that both the Bilansky and the Stinney judicial proceedings were clouded by various political motives and ambitions of its participants. Her story is a fascinating read you can enjoy over Labor Day weekend.

 

Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines

Courtroom 052

Be aware that today the 2016 Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines (MSG) go into effect.  Now if you or a client have recently been charged with a felony, you probably don’t need to worry about these new updated Guidelines.  As explained on the front page, the Guidelines only apply to “felonies committed on or after the effective date,” so the 2015 Guidelines would still apply to you.  These are still available in the Guidelines  archive, along with all of the other old Guidelines going back to the original 1980 version.

The most notable change to the 2016 Guidelines pertains to drug offenses, essentially reducing penalties and enhancing treatment options for first-time offenders of small quantities.  These changes were made as part of the goal of the Commission to send more addicts to treatment and reduce the state’s prison population.  The Guidelines Commission adopted changes to reduce sentences for first-time offenders, and allow judges and prosecutors to use mitigating factors to reduce sentences for people with addiction issues.  The commission added new aggravating factors, including selling drugs to a minor  or selling drugs in a broad geographic area.  Reflecting these changes is the incorporation of a whole new sentencing grid for drug offenders.

The Guidelines still allow judges much discretion in sentencing due to its use of mitigating factors, aggravating factors, and suggested sentencing ranges.  They also allow judges additional flexibility to make departures from recommended sentences based on various factors, for which the judge must submit a departure report.  Earlier this summer Ramsey District Court Judge Judith Tilsen gave a thoughtful interview for Minnesota Public Radio about a judge’s role in determining sentences, including application of the MSG grids.

When they first came about in 1980, the MSG were a groundbreaking tool.  The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission was established by the Minnesota Legislature in 1978 with the task of eliminate gross disparities that might be related to race, income levels, or the judge who issued your sentence.   Minnesota went on to become the first jurisdiction to implement state-wide sentencing guidelines drafted by a sentencing commission.   Since their adoption, federal government has since adopted such guidelines and 19 states have also followed.