Former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Alexander MacDonald “Sandy” Keith died last month. I served as a law clerk at the Court when the Chief joined as the junior associate justice in 1989. He was the first person to hold office in each of the three branches of Minnesota state government, serving as state senator, the 37th Lieutenant Governor, and as an associate justice and later chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.
The Chief was born and raised in Rochester, Minnesota before graduating magna cum laude from Amherst College in 1950, and from Yale Law School in 1953. He served in the United States Marine Corps during the Korean War. After the war, the Chief took a job as counsel with the Mayo Clinic, where he worked with future United States Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. It did not take long before he was elected to the Minnesota State Senate and then a few years later as Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota. He established a friendship with Rudy Perpich, who would later become Governor, and in turn, in 1989, appointed the Chief to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
I first met “The Chief” in August 1989. He had a gregarious personality and was well-liked at the Court. He would visit the law clerk cubicle area often and tell us stories about his years in the legislature and serving as the Lieutenant Governor. He hosted a brown bag lunch with the law clerks in the Court conference room and we would hear more stories from his work in private practice. It was during one of those talks that he first impressed on us the importance of helping clients work toward a settlement. He was one of the early proponents for the use of mediation. What he told me was to use mediation.
In his family law practice, Keith promoted mediation services. He enjoyed working through difficult issues and had a talent for knowing who and how to bring the right people to the table and find a resolution. He felt it was an attorney’s obligation to make an effort toward a settlement and use mediation.
In the summer of 1990, the law clerks were hosting the annual golf outing for the Court. The word broke on the radio that Chief Justice Peter Popovich had resigned his position. At the last hole, the remaining six members of the Court held an impromptu caucus underneath a maple tree to discuss the development, while the law clerks waited nearby. We would later learn that Governor Perpich would name Sandy Keith as the next Chief Justice that summer. He became Chief Justice in 1990 and served in that capacity until 1998.
When he left the bench, I crossed paths with the Chief again. He asked me to work as trial counsel with him on a case involving collectible milk caps, or “pogs” that were part of an in package chance to win a prize. These milk caps are collectibles to some and were sold for one dollar with a scratch game that included prizes up to $250. Before you say, “come on man”, I’ll note that the Wisconsin Court of Appeals found that the same product was compliant with the exact same statute across the St. Croix river. Bohrer v. City of Milwaukee, 248 Wis.2d 319, 635 N.W.2d 816 (2001). The Chief was working with this client on remaining compliant with Minnesota’s gambling laws when he asked that I become involved to handle the trial. As luck would have it, I had the chance to co-counsel with the Chief through the trial and then appeal before the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Minnesota Souvenir Milkcaps, LLC v. State, 687 N.W.2d 400 (Minn. Ct. App. 2004). Yes, we talked about settlement or a mediation, but to do so would require both parties to agree and the State was not willing to budge on its view about this product.
From that experience, I have the great memory of walking into a Ramsey County courtroom with Mr. Keith (he did not use his title when back in private practice) only to find a room full of representatives of every charitable gambling group in the state. As you might imagine, we drew objections from every pull tab organization that supported little league baseball and bantam hockey. They did not want our client cutting in on their market. Alas, things did not go well for our client, but for years I could share that memory with the Chief.
The Chief, a Minnesota legend and proponent of mediation, passed away at his home on October 3, 2020. He was 91 years old.