Chief Supreme

Lorie Gildea is in charge of a $300 million, 315-judge court system. And she lives in your neighborhood.

“I love my neighbors!”

Lorie Gildea didn’t flinch when we asked her about Lowry Hill.

The Southwest neighborhood, overwhelming liberal, is one of the bluest regions in an already blue state. A quick scan of the 2008 election results shows that 80 percent of voters in the area backed Obama. A solid 68 percent wanted Al Franken as senator, and 76 percent helped push U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison toward reelection. Meanwhile, Gildea, a judge, had just wrapped up a two-year appointment to the Minnesota Supreme Court (she was elected to a second, six-year term that same year).

The guy who appointed her? Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Not the most popular politician in Southwest.

Flash forward a year and a half. On May 13, 2010, Pawlenty again promoted Gildea, this time to the top of the ladder: Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. On July 1, Gildea took office, becoming only the second woman to hold such a post after Kathleen Blatz. For the girl from Plummer, Minn., heading up her home state’s high court was “an honor beyond words.”

There were congratulations. But also loud grumblings from DFLers. Gildea’s appointment came a mere two weeks after she had penned a strong dissent to the high court’s rebuke of Pawlenty’s infamous “unallotment” budget balancing. Moreover, Gildea’s husband, Andy Gildea, works with the House GOP caucus. A Star Tribune headline the day of the appointment declared “Pawlenty’s picks keep high court tilting right.”

Gildea is fierce about her impartiality. As a judge, she has to be. But the May 13 appointment left the scent of conservatism all over her.

We couldn’t help but wonder if all this made for uncomfortable small talk in the Wedge check out line.

“No,” she said flatly. “I don’t think of myself as a politician. And when we do our work here on the court, we don’t think of ourselves as a liberal court or a conservative court.”

She added, “I don’t get into labels. I just don’t think that’s productive. I don’t think it aptly describes the work of a judge, and I just don’t go down that road.”

Got it. No beef with the neighbors.

And for the record, Gildea has been appointed to positions of trust by leaders of all three political parties in Minnesota. Before Pawlenty put her on the Supreme Court, Gov. Jesse Ventura, the state’s most famous Independent, put her on the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission in 2001. And when DFL Senator Amy Klobochar was still a Hennepin County attorney, she hired Gildea as an assistant.

Gildea arrived in Lowry Hill in 1995, two years after returning home from a Washington D.C. career that would have most lawyers jealous. After finishing an undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, Morris, in 1983, Gildea left for Georgetown University Law Center, where she earned a J.D. three years later.

“It was a very exciting city to go to law school in,” she said. “The law school is right off of Capitol Hill. So you could to the Capitol and watch the laws being made. You could walk to the Supreme Court and watch hearings about the laws that the legislative branch made.”

Gildea went on to work for seven years for Arent Fox, a top-100 law firm. But, she remembers, “I talked incessantly about Minnesota when I lived in D.C. So the question for me wasn’t whether I was going to come home. It was when am I going to come home.”

She came home in 1993, taking “a dream job” as an associate general counsel for the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. Her 11-year tenure overlapped with the academic scandal surrounding then-head Gophers basketball coach Clem Haskins. Haskins was caught paying an academic counselor to write coursework for 18 players between 1994 and 1998. After the dust settled, Haskins ended up winning $1.5 million in a settlement and a buyout of his contract.

Back in Minneapolis, Gildea and her husband rented a place Downtown for a few years. In 1995, they bought a house in Lowry Hill.

“We looked at a lot of communities, and the house we ended up buying was just in the perfect neighborhood for us,” she said. “It’s close. There’s a lot to do in the area. Lots of great restaurants. My husband and I love to eat out. So pretty much all of those places in the Uptown area and the Downtown area — we even venture into St. Louis Park sometimes. Pretty much you name it, and we love it.”

Gildea and her husband are members of Central Lutheran Church, at South 12th Street and 3rd Avenue. You’ll also find the Gildeas at Golden Gopher games, no matter the sport. Still nostalgic over her time at the University of Minnesota, the chief justice says there’s “no better job for a lawyer.”

And there’s one other hobby Gildea’s fond of, court spokesman John Kostouros told us. Gildea is a self-avowed “cowgirl.” And not in the George W. Bush sense. She’s a seriously accomplished horsewoman.

Earlier this year, the chief justice placed second in her class at the Winona Horse Show of the North Central Reining Horse Association, maneuvering her steed Slide Smart toward a small cash prize.

She doesn’t mention it in interviews, Kostrouros said, because “she’s quite humble.”

Indeed, you can put the Plummer, Minn., girl in Lowry Hill. But her rodeo roots are coming with her.