From our recent interview with Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Anne McKeig, a few things stand out.
First, family means a very great deal to Justice McKeig. We’re tempted to say that family might mean everything to her — not only her own family but all of our families (and, more broadly, our communities).
Second, Minnesotans are extraordinarily fortunate to have Justice McKeig on our state supreme court. She brings dedication, tenacity, integrity, along with her deep personal perspective, informed by an upbringing in rural Northcentral Minnesota in the Native American community. On top of that, we benefit from her expertise in family law, in particular. Justice McKeig embodies the importance of diversity among our judges — diversity not only in life experience but also legal experience.
ML: I want to start by asking you about your Native American background. Can you elaborate on that part of your identity and how that informs what you do and how you see our legal system?
Justice McKeig: My Native American background has profoundly influenced the way that I look at justice and it has always influenced the role I see for myself in the justice system. My father – Monte “Big Dog” McKeig – was born in Onigum on the Leech Lake Reservation, although he was an enrolled member of the White Earth Nation.
He grew up in Federal Dam in north central Minnesota between Grand Rapids and Bemidji, where my grandfather worked for the railroad.
My grandfather was fluent in Ojibwe and he was a student of the boarding school era. So he was actually sent away to two different boarding schools, I believe it was Morris and Pipestone. And he kept running away and they kept sending him back. He returned home eventually, a young man, and married my grandmother who was Bohemian and who was a school teacher. They had three children, one of them being my dad and his two sisters, my aunts. My father was raised and taught some of the Ojibwe language although my grandfather probably lost some of the language during his time at the boarding schools.
But, more than the native language, both my parents and also their parents passed on strong values: a simple life, hard work, clean living, a sense of self, a sense of community and knowing what your role in the community.
For example, even though my parents had a chance to live here in the Twin Cities and probably would’ve had a better lifestyle as far as money, that wasn’t what my parents wanted. They wanted the closeness you feel on the reservation. Even when I go home now, I feel like my heart, my soul, my everything is in Federal Dam. I wasn’t born there, but that’s where I moved at the age of three to be raised. And there’s a level of comfort, a level of trust, a feeling of belonging. Outside that close circle, there’s a feeling of not belonging. I think many people feel something like that, though maybe in slightly different ways.
My parents taught us and expected us to be good people, to respect the land, and whatever we took from the land was to be used. So, for example, we hunted, but we wasted nothing; we ate all we hunted. And we took care of the land. We did not litter. I remember when the Corps of Engineers built a park in my hometown. My father was very unhappy about that. He was concerned that tourists would come and take the fish and leave their garbage. Maybe that was unfair of him, but the point is that we had a respect for the land and we cared for it. Not everyone does. Indian people live off the land. This impacts your lifestyle.
So I didn’t know how these values were impacting me all those years but I definitely learned right from wrong and I definitely learned that I was to stand up for the underrepresented or the underdog because that’s what my dad would’ve done. And both of my parents were very giving people. I learned from watching them with their generosity and kindness. My dad never turned anyone away that needed help and my mom is the same. I took that with me when I left for college.
Off I went to college, to St. Catherine’s, because my mom had gone there. You could say I was born to go there. There was never any doubt that that was where I would go to college.
From there it was off to law school and, after law school, I was just lucky. I landed in the Hennepin county attorney’s office in the Child Protection Division, but I didn’t know anything about it. That was not a world that I knew about but, after doing the work for a while, I could recognize it. It surrounded me everywhere back home on the reservation. Some of my good friends came from abuse, abusive and neglected homes, and I saw my mom caring for a lot of the kids in the community.
She was Indian Education Director. She would be the one that, if a kid was having trouble at home or crying or pain or suffering from some traumatic event, she was their confidante. She didn’t tell us about any of that. But looking back, I can recognize it now as an adult. Then I was fortunate enough to be asked to work on the Indian child welfare cases in the County Attorney’s office. All of a sudden it came together with my legal education because I was able to work with my community and really learn more about myself. So I worked with many of the elders who represented the different reservations. We have eleven here in the state. And I was able to go out to the reservations.
I was able to go out of state to Pine Ridge and Rosebud. I was welcomed. Part of that is because I was native and so I was welcomed, but also they were very patient with me because I wasn’t a traditionalist. That’s not how I was raised. I was raised with the similar values, but I think of people like Jackie Wilson. She was an urban representative for the White Earth Nation. I think of Katy Turner who was also working with the tribes in court. They really helped me on a personal level, which helped me on a professional level.
ML: Is your father still around?
Justice McKeig: So it was a gift to know my dad but, no, he died of diabetes when he was 61, which is unfortunately something that plagues the community. And he was in construction. He was a 49’r. When he worked in the cities, there was more work. When he went back home there was less work, so he also ran a little garage, Monte’s Garage. I can’t say that he made a whole lot of money for that because if somebody needed something done and they didn’t have the money, he did it anyway and they would work it out later.
ML: And you are one of five siblings?
Justice McKeig: I am. I am in the middle. I have four mediocre brothers [joking].
ML: And where are your brothers?
Justice McKeig: My oldest brother is in California, married. He has a degree in aeronautical engineering. He’s the smart one. My two older brothers were hit by a drunk driver when they were 21 and 22. So the second brother is disabled, and he lives at home with my mom. My third brother lives back up north and he works at a lumberyard. And then my fourth brother works at the casino and he also lives up north.
ML: In Federal Dam where you were raised, were there that Native Americans and non-Native Americans?
Justice McKeig: It’s a checkerboard reservation, meaning that you have both non-natives living on the reservation as well as natives living on the reservation. So it’s a very mixed community and it’s surrounded not only by the Leech Lake reservation, but we have the Red Lake reservation which isn’t too far away. And then White Earth is not all that far away either. And so those three major communities all come together because Bemidji is a hub, for example, for coming and getting groceries, et cetera.
ML: One thing which I bet few of our readers know much about are the tribal legal systems…
Justice McKeig: The tribal courts have certainly gotten stronger over the years when I started as a county attorney and the early nineties, I think some of them are in early development. But now in Minnesota, we have a very strong tribal court system. All of the reservations have their own tribal courts with the tribal court judges, tribal attorneys. They have a judicial code that is written, which is akin to many of the statutes that we have probably some modeled on. We have a tribal/state court forum where members of the State Court and members of the tribal courts meet on a quarterly basis and work together on collaborative issues that they face that are in common. So our state is pretty rich when it comes to that.
ML: Have you ever appeared in tribal court?
Justice McKeig: I did as a county attorney appear in tribal court. And other than that, I’ve just gone to observe tribal court. We did a project together with White Earth on how we can address better address domestic violence and family court systems. And so Robert Blaeser was the Chief Judge up at White Earth. So we went up and watched some of their proceedings and spent the day talking to them about their policies and practices and what we could learn from that and then also sharing news from the project to try to breed new ideas for both sides.
ML: What was your experience like appearing in tribal court?
Justice McKeig: You know, it’s like, it’s a comfort level. As an Indian person I think that I would feel more comfortable in tribal court than some. That’s not true for everyone. Some people don’t want to own that part and they want privacy. They don’t want to appear in tribal court where it feels like perhaps everyone will know your business. It’s less formal in some regards, but the rules are the same in many regards. I think that the tribal court just honors and accepts people communicating in a different way. People are allowed to communicate in their own ways; the tribal court meets people wherever they are.
I don’t know that our court system always does that.
ML: How would our system more honor and accept the way people communicate? How would you like to see that?
Justice McKeig: You know, there are rules, regulations, statutes, but as the judiciary, we have to be able to communicate with those who come before us and we have a very diverse population that appears in court. There is a growing number who are self-represented and they may not have the education that many of us have on the bench. And so we have to communicate in terms that they understand. It’s not talking down to anyone. It’s just talking with them and also understanding what they’re trying to tell us because they may not have all of the fancy words and phrases, but we certainly can draw that out from them and what they’re trying to tell us as a court. And I think we have a responsibility to make sure that people are at least heard and understood.
ML: Is the growing number of self-represented people is due to the high cost of legal counsel or something else?
Justice McKeig: Yes. Contested divorces can cost more than $100,000 and, obviously, this is far out of reach of almost all Minnesotans.
ML This is a common theme running through Minnesota Litigator interviews with judges: the high cost of our legal system. I don’t know of anyone who has proposed a solution. I suppose if there were an answer, we’d all be clamoring for it. But do you have any thoughts or insights as to how we might remedy our unaffordable justice system?
Justice McKeig: I would probably start with the cost of law school. We can’t have our young lawyers coming out with such debt because if they didn’t have the debt to pay off, I think, they could serve the underserved. I think that the legal community is a very giving community and there are those who can give and give again, but it’s very hard to expect lawyers who are 10 years out of law school who owe $200,000 in debt to be able to give much because they’re working very, very hard to just try to pay their own debts. So I would start with that. I think you would get a more robust pro bono contribution. Not that we don’t have a robust pro bono efforts now. I think compared to other states we do. I can say that whenever someone needs representation, there’s usually somebody who steps up, but it’s the same community over and over again. It’s those who can afford to do it.
There’s also some talk about that there could be something less than a full-blown lawyer to represent individuals in court. And I know there are two sides to that. I mean, I would never want to diminish or take away the role that lawyers play, but at the same time, if we’re truly serious about making our legal system affordable, then we have to look at options like this, some sort of…I don’t know if the right word is hierarchy…but some alternative form of representation.
ML: You were on the family court for seven years and your reputation precedes you as a person who was extremely committed and talented at that job. I recall from another interview you gave where you described it as a kind of emergency room or triage kind of environment…
Justice McKeig: I think I thrive on that, sadly for us. You know, I think that comes from a similar work as an assistant county attorney. There were the same kinds of demands put us. It just becomes normalized, I suppose. But it’s not a good way to do business. I mean, I like the fast pace of it, but at the same time I would always have to check myself at the end of the day: have I done a good job and did I miss something because of the rush? It’s not the best way for us to be working.
ML: Without getting into specifics of particular cases, are there particular cases that you’ve experienced over your time on the family court that you feel a sense of pride about — where you confronted difficult situation and you made it right?
Justice McKeig: There are very few of those because they’re challenging cases and it’s rare that you see the fruits of your labor necessarily while you’re there. And that’s not what it’s really about. I would say that I was more satisfied with the work that I was able to do as presiding judge on policy matters, instituting the Family Court Enhancement Project along with Referee Mary Madden to try to improve outcomes for families who are facing domestic violence. I think we did some really good work there and that’s continuing and I’m glad about that. We also opened up a line of communication between the family court and the juvenile court that was there, but perhaps not as robust about kids in need of protection under services because there’s a crossover between those two courts. I liked having a good creative team and we had a great creative team there at the family court. We did some good policy work.
As for particular cases, it’s just difficult. I always worry about the kids — it’s too many times you see a divorce go really south in a bad way.
When people listened to me– I used to tell them – “Look, it physically transforms you. It emotionally transforms you, and, in the end, you may come out the same…So, if you can really make thoughtful decisions, thinking outside of yourself….” When people would listen to that, really take that in, and take advantage of that, I felt some satisfaction.
Even then, I still feel sad for the families, but at least the kids aren’t going to get drug through years of litigation. It’s so frustrating when you see the same families back and back again. No matter what you tell them, it’s just mind-blowing. You wonder, “When are they going to see it? When are they going to see what they’re doing to their families?”
ML: Again, without getting into specifics, are there decisions or any roles that you played on the family court where you thought, “Oh, I wish I had done better. I wish I could get a ‘do-over’?”
Justice McKeig: Often. I think people would be lying if they said that that’s not true because we’re never at our best all the time. The only thing that I could do was to tell my clerks – I used a sports analogy of soccer since my kids are in soccer – I said if I’m, if I’m going too far, give me the yellow card, but if I’m really crossing the line, you gotta give me the red card and tell me that I need a break. They were really good with that permission, but certainly, there were instances where I probably could’ve been more patient and I lost my patience. It wasn’t necessarily the case that was before me at that moment, it was perhaps because of the ten that came before it. So you have to do a self-check, I think, at the end of every day, so that you can correct what you need to quickly.
ML: Some studies of sentencing judges suggest judges give longer sentences before lunch, when they are hungry or cranky…
Justice McKeig: I imagine that is possible. We ask so much of our District Court Judges. Most times they do not even get lunch. They run from one thing to the next. We cannot keep asking more of them and then expect perfection. It’s not possible. You have to focus every time – “This is a different case, different family. Am I still giving them the same attention that I gave others?” It’s less about losing patience than losing focus, not giving the amount of attention that is needed.
ML: In Hennepin County, I understand that judges have three-year rotations in different courts (civil, family, juvenile, criminal). Did you have rotations or seven straight years in the family court?
Justice McKeig: You start with one year on criminal. So I did a year on criminal and then you choose a specialty court. And so that would be either juvenile court or family court for the most part, since I’d been in juvenile court for so many years, there would have been a lot of conflicts and I just thought I needed to push myself outside of my comfort zone and go to family court. So I chose to go to family court. I could’ve left there after three years, but I really was committed to staying there and then at that point I was going to become the presiding judge, so that generally requires one to stay longer.
ML: Then you went from there to the Minnesota Supreme Court, a dramatic change of venue, so to speak. Quite a culture shock?
Justice McKeig: That’d be fair to say.
ML: And that’s a transition but you’re happy to have made it, I assume?
Justice McKeig: Yes. Much more now. I think I’m finding my own way there, but I have to put my own flavor on it. I have to put my own take on it because I think I that, no matter where I go, it’s just me, I like I have to have fun at work. It’s important work, you know. I will always work hard. I will always get my work done, but I’m also very aware that it’s a job. It’s, it’s not, it’s not my identity. When I leave there, my kids are great about reminding me and I’m thankful for that. That’s a job. I do that job, but I’m still Ann McKeig from Federal Dam.
ML: How many kids do you have and what are their age ranges?
Justice McKeig: Balam is 30, Xicotencatl, 28, Itzel is 21, Caleb is 17 and Tayana is 14.
ML: That’s quite an age range for kids.
Justice McKeig: It’s a blended family. My husband immigrated here from Mexico. And so when he moved here, we married and then we had Caleb. Then his three older children all immigrated here. And then we had Tayana.
Then my husband’s ex-wife came because we wanted her to be with the kids and so we were all together for about nine months, all in one house. But then the older boys moved out eventually and my husband’s ex-wife moved in with them.
ML: Any aspiring lawyers from the McKeig family?
Justice McKeig: Interestingly enough, they tell me no, but I do think, my cousin, Alex, (my aunt is a year older than I am and it is her son) is a senior in high school — I believe he is an aspiring lawyer. And so I’m glad that somebody in the family is at least thinking about it.
ML: Would you advise someone to go into the law now or would you warn them if they were considering it?
Justice McKeig: I tell people that they really need to look at it from a financial perspective. I have spent many hours talking to my clerks about the debt that they’re in and what that’s going to mean for them long term…I think you have to really want to do it. You have to know what it is that you’re doing. I went into law school not really knowing what being a lawyer was going to be. I would say that the students that are coming in now are much more informed about what being a lawyer is, certainly more than I was, and I do think that many of them are looking at the financial outcome because, if you don’t know what career path you’re going to go in, what your backup plan is, it’s an awful lot of money to invest and you may not recoup it. Now, if you’re passionate about that and that’s all you want to do, well then I say don’t let anything stop you, but I do think it has to be a very thought-out decision.
ML: So you said that you went to law school not knowing what being a lawyer was going to be. Why did you go to law school?
Justice McKeig: Who knows? I mean, it really. It’s like people have asked me this question and I can only only say that, in ninth grade, I had to do a career paper and I said I was going to be a dentist. But that was not going to work out because it was a lot of science. And so I just changed course and said I’ll be a lawyer. And I stuck with that from ninth grade. Never changed, just full steam ahead. And I was in law school. I didn’t, I didn’t enjoy law school but I liked the litigation class. I think I was able to take one or two litigation courses from Allen Oleisky — I’m good friends with his son, Bobby — and Bobby’s dad was a great teacher. But to know what I was going to do after… I just had to have a job because I had to pay the bills. So I guess somebody was guiding me but it wasn’t me.
ML: If you could buy magic wand to change one aspect of Minnesota law, is there anything that you would change?
Justice McKeig: I would really force our system to do child protection as a true early intervention. I think we’ve talked a lot about that, but it’s a system that has many problems and we’re not taking care of the people who are working in it, let alone the people who are entering it as families. And I would do a complete overhaul.
ML: Help me understand what you mean by “not taking care of folks in it as families.”
Justice McKeig: We have families who are entering the family court process and that’s a traumatic time. We must recognize and deal with that but, in my view, at the same time, we do not intervene soon enough. The system has become one that is constantly responding to the emergency of the day. It is overwhelmed, which makes it hard to implement significant changes because we are constantly dealing with crises.
I know that there is much work being done to try to change the focus from not just protecting children in immediate danger to a child well-being model, but we need to look at child protection as a public health crisis and treat it as such. The entire community needs to become a partner in solving the problem rather than watching from the sidelines. The work is difficult and emotionally draining. It changes you forever. If something goes wrong, social workers are often blamed. If there is a death, they are at fault. It’s personal. Individual people then become targets. And are there problems? There very well may be, but I don’t think we understand the realities of the work and the conditions that social workers have to endure.
I think the system should be blown wide open. There’s got to be transparency and accountability for everybody. But part of that is the community. You know, when I go out and talk to people, I say, “You know, we do well with or better, at least, with our elderly. If I see an elder person who’s on the street who needs help crossing or who needs help carrying something from their car. We generally, as a society, we will say something to them. But how often do we really look and recognize youth on the streets or youth that are out?” We don’t very often look them in the eye and say, “Hey, nice haircut, nice jacket, cool hat.” I think there are so many youth that are just unseen and they feel unseen.
They feel not listened to. They don’t feel like they’re “a part of…” And I think people never know when that one phrase that you say to that kid is going to stick with them to make a difference. And I probably have only really recognized that more as I’ve left Family Court because I’ve run into kids that I removed when they were children and they seemingly have a healthy respect for me when they really could hate me for what was the traumatic experience for them. But in some way they feel like I knew them, I helped them, I tried to help them. And I think that more of us have to do that.
ML: It seems to me the system is very focused on privacy. For example, going to a neighbor’s house and saying, “Hey, keep your eye out on that seven year-old next door. She could use a little positive attention….” That would be completely impossible under our current system, right? And so what you’re suggesting…it would be enormously difficult to actually make that change?
Justice McKeig: Probably, but if we don’t start somewhere, we’re not going to change the culture. You know, if we keep doing the same, it’s going to stay the same. And I think that we do have the ability to make some of those changes. I think about smaller communities, having grown up in Federal Dam. Everybody knew who I was and I can remember one of my brothers kept running away from home. I mean he would literally go down a dirt road and go around the corner. The neighbor would say, “Hey, you’re supposed to be home.” And my brother would go back home. And then he’d be like, “Oh, I don’t like Bob White because he’s always telling me to go back home.” If people saw you in town doing something that you weren’t supposed to be doing, they told your family. Extended family played a big role in raising us and caring about us and encouraging us. And that is what we need to do with our child protection kids because they need some extra attention. And I’ve seen that now myself. For a while, I had a child living me who was a friend of my daughter’s and she brought her to us and said she needed our help. Some might have thought we were crazy when we said, “We’ve got this other kid staying with us,” but I mean, isn’t that what we should all be doing?
ML: The challenge I see from what you’re describing — bringing those small town values, caring for one another and looking out for one another into cities, is having the state play a role. Is the state role part of it? It’s one thing if you opened your home to your daughter’s friend. It is a different challenge having the state play a role?
Justice McKeig: And we don’t necessarily want them to. It can go both ways. We don’t necessarily want the state to come in and say, “Well, she’s not living with her parents so the system has to be involved,” when that’s not necessarily true. The community might be perfectly capable of taking care of it. So it’s a balancing act. This is a public health crisis and we need everyone on deck. So rather than just having a child protection social worker and their supervisor making a decision about what’s going to happen to this child, you certainly could bring in the medical field, the education field, you know, there’s other fields that they all cross. And if we did a, a bigger discussion about that, I think we would probably have better informed decisions
ML: I use Minnesota Litigator to provide a platform to communicate to the Minnesota bar. Have anything to say to them?
Justice McKeig: Thank you. Thank you for all that you do. This is not an easy profession, but I think it is a profession that cares about each other and it has its challenges and the challenges will come and they will go. But I think one of the things that Minnesotans do is that they treat each other well and it is a progressive state. We’ve come up with great ideas. we can put all our heads together. I think it’s a very giving bar and I can’t say that I knew that when I was a county attorney because it was in a very small environment, but certainly I saw it as a district court judge and I see it now. And we should be proud of our system. We have a lot of very well-trained and well-versed lawyers.
ML: Several years ago Justice Kathleen Blatz sent out a call for lawyers to volunteer as guardians ad litem. That was her focus for a time. Do you have a suggestion, in particular, for where you would urge Minnesota lawyers to dedicate their time, resources, energy to?
Justice McKeig: Well, Kathleen Blatz was on point. She had first-hand experience working with kids and she possessed the passion for their protection. I have always admired her wisdom and her desire to help these kids. Not enough has changed. And having the lawyers as guardians ad litem, I had firsthand experience of the benefits that Justice Blatz’s advocacy brought to the juvenile court. And right now there is a, as you say this, there is a shortage of guardians and I think that what we need is the community to help support the guardian litem program in whatever way it can, whether it’s volunteering, whether it’s talking to legislators about the importance of that program because it’s not a program that’s just in juvenile court. It’s a program that’s also in family court. And without them, I think we have less informed and less efficient processes. If that program fails we’re in big trouble and they definitely are in crisis. There’s a waiting list for appointments of mandatory appointments of for kids in juvenile court because they don’t have enough
ML: So that is an area in which you would urge lawyers to still be thinking about for their pro bono time and efforts?
Justice McKeig: That and in family law. Family law is very challenging for people to try to figure out how to maneuver. And we know that, for example, just in the family court, in Hennepin County, the last numbers that I saw was about 70% are self-represented and there are 12,000 plus cases going through that court a year and we know we can’t always do right by people in there because we don’t always get the information to make good decisions. And I had family law bar is very giving, but I think they could probably use some help.
ML: Thank you very much. We appreciate it.
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