It didn’t take long for Anne McKeig, associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, to reach a judgment about Denfeld High School.

“You have now become my number one favorite school in all of the state of Minnesota, including my high school,” she told an auditorium full of Denfeld students on Friday morning. “You have now beat them.”

That might appear to be merely a politically astute comment from someone who serves in an elected office. But McKeig had ample reason for her enthusiasm. Denfeld sleuths had done their homework. They had found out that McKeig is a huge fan of country-western music legend Johnny Cash. So her talk to the student body in the auditorium where Cash once performed was preceded by an ensemble of student vocalists and instrumentalists covering Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” (Side note: They killed it.)

Cash resonates with her, McKeig said, not just because of his music but also because of his story.

“As a kid growing up, he didn’t have it very easy,” she told the students. “He was a kid who suffered from abuse in his home, and yet he made it as an amazing country singer.”

McKeig’s own story is one of overcoming difficult circumstances. A child of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, she grew up in a trailer home in the tiny town of Federal Dam on the Leech Lake Reservation with her mom and dad and four brothers. The family’s yearly income was below $20,000, she said.

After working her way through college and law school, she served in the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office and later became a district judge. In 2016, then-Gov. Mark Dayton appointed her to the Minnesota Supreme Court. It made McKeig the first Native American to serve on the state’s highest court and the first Native American woman to serve on the supreme court of any state.

McKeig told the students about her interview with Dayton in the governor’s residence, which she insisted on calling a mansion. “They kept telling me it’s a residence,” she related. “I said, ‘No, I grew up in a trailer house. It’s a mansion.’”

Dayton’s choice was confirmed when Minnesota’s voters chose in 2018 to keep her in office for a six-year term.

Dressed casually in a blue denim shirt and purple slacks, the plain-spoken McKeig let the students know that rising to the top hadn’t changed her. She cheerfully admitted not understanding all the words used by those around her when she first joined the court. It took a conversation with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor — the first Hispanic in that court — to convince her that she belonged, she said.

Her message to the students: They shouldn’t let their circumstances or geography hold them back.

“You are from northern Minnesota, so you are from the best part of the state,” McKeig said. “And I don’t give a damn what people tell you. You can do anything you put your mind to.”

The message resonated with Najae Swanigan, a Denfeld senior who plans to attend St. Catherine’s University, as McKeig did, and wants to be a lawyer.

“It made a good impression,” Swanigan said. “She went into details about her college life and what courses she took and how many years it took. So I think that was a good thing.”

Denfeld students listen to Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Anne McKeig speak Friday in the auditorium at the school. McKeig is the first American Indian justice in the state of Minnesota. (Clint Austin /caustin@duluthnews.com)
Denfeld students listen to Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Anne McKeig speak Friday in the auditorium at the school. McKeig is the first American Indian justice in the state of Minnesota. (Clint Austin /caustin@duluthnews.com)

Tawny Plentyhorse, a Denfeld junior who is part Lakota, said she found the talk encouraging.

“Women in general are put down more and told they can’t do this, they can’t do that,” Plentyhorse said. “And when you’re Native it’s even more that way. So yeah, it was very empowering.”

Swanigan and Plentyhorse were among a group of students who had been chosen to share lunch with McKeig in Denfeld’s media center. It may only have taken “Ring of Fire” for McKeig to fall in love with the school, but the Denfeld sleuths had learned more about her. So after her talk, students had presented her with her favorite dessert, a lemon meringue pie. And the lunch, catered by Denfeld’s Clock Tower Cafe, was her favorite meal: lasagna.

Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Anne McKeig talks with Denfeld High School student Courtney Erickson who is serving lunch with the Clock Tower Cafe at the school Friday.  (Clint Austin /caustin@duluthnews.com)
Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Anne McKeig talks with Denfeld High School student Courtney Erickson who is serving lunch with the Clock Tower Cafe at the school Friday. (Clint Austin /caustin@duluthnews.com)

McKeig: Court’s diversity a strength

The Minnesota Supreme Court’s diversity is a strength, Associate Justice Anne McKeig says.

Speaking to local media on Friday after her talk at Denfeld High School and before eating lunch with students, McKeig was asked if the ethnic composition of the seven-member court matters.

McKeig, the first Native American to serve on the court, said it does.

“We have the first openly gay and lesbian in Justice (Margaret) Chutich; we have the second African American in Natalie Hudson; we have a female chief justice (Lorie S. Gildea); we have a female majority,” McKeig said. “I think we all have something unique to offer, and I think that makes our decisions richer and deeper and better serves Minnesota — all of Minnesota.”

McKeig had been asked specifically about Bde Maka Ska, the Minneapolis lake formerly known as Lake Calhoun. The Department of Natural Resources renamed the lake in 2018, but a group challenged the commissioner’s authority to do so. The question came to the state Supreme Court in November.

Minnesota Public Radio, in its coverage of that case, reported that McKeig questioned the lawyer for the group that wants to restore the Calhoun name. She noted in her questioning that it had been known as Bde Maka Ska before it became Lake Calhoun.

She didn’t comment on the case itself on Friday, except to say that Minnesota was lucky to have a varied group on the Supreme Court. The court hasn’t yet announced its decision on the case.

Denfeld High School students Shaelynn Novitsky (from left) and Cearra McConnell help Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Anne McKeig with a blanket that the student body gave to her during her visit to the school Friday. (Clint Austin /caustin@duluthnews.com)
Denfeld High School students Shaelynn Novitsky (from left) and Cearra McConnell help Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Anne McKeig with a blanket that the student body gave to her during her visit to the school Friday. (Clint Austin /caustin@duluthnews.com)

McKeig displayed judicial reserve when asked to weigh in on the question of whether Duluth’s school boundaries should be changed to produce more equity among its schools in a way that would require long bus rides to school for some students.

She did note that when growing up in Federal Dam, she had to take the bus 30 miles to school.

“It’s a balancing,” McKeig said. “People are going to have, obviously, really strong opinions about it. My kids attend Osseo, which is a very diverse school. I think a lot of great things happen as a result of that and life lessons for them. But I certainly wouldn’t tell any parent what decisions to make about their kids, because I think it’s very personal.”