Rosalie Wahl was a pioneering figure in Minnesota law during the second half of the twentieth century. She became the state's first female Supreme Court justice at a time when there were no women on the U.S. Supreme Court.
While on the Minnesota court, Wahl served on its Study Commission on the Mentally Disabled. She also chaired its task forces on gender fairness and racial bias. The task forces made major changes in the way the state court system dealt with women and minorities.
Rosalie Wahl was born Sara Rosalie Erwin on August 27, 1924, in Gordon, Kansas. Her mother died when she was three. Her younger brother and grandfather died in a train accident when she was seven, and she was raised by her grandmother. While growing up and working on the family's farm during the Great Depression, Erwin learned to have empathy for the poor and downtrodden.
Erwin attended the University of Kansas during World War II. There she studied sociology and helped found the university's first interracial residential housing co-op. Years later, Wahl would look back on this period as a formative one. College life introduced her to social justice issues and broadened her view of the world.
Erwin graduated in 1946 and married Ross Wahl. They moved to Minnesota, joining a cooperative living community in Circle Pines from 1949–1955. Wahl spent more than a decade as a homemaker and community volunteer. While living in Lake Elmo, she helped create a public library system for Washington County.
In 1962 she decided to attend William Mitchell College of Law. It was a bold choice for a thirty-eight-year-old housewife with four children (she would have one more during law school).
After graduation Wahl worked for the state as an assistant public defender. In 1973, she accepted a professorship at William Mitchell. She played a leading role in creating its clinical legal education program, and became its main professor. Each day she guided law students who represented indigents charged with misdemeanors.
Wahl's work as a public defender brought her into regular contact with Minnesota's Supreme Court. Throughout the mid-1970s she argued appeals before its judges, building a strong record of criminal defense.
In 1977, when Governor Rudy Perpich sought out a replacement for departing justice Harry H. MacLaughlin, Wahl's experience made her a top candidate. In June of that year, Perpich announced her appointment as Minnesota's first female Supreme Court justice. Wahl won reelection in 1978—a fierce contest in which she faced five male challengers—and again in 1984 and 1990. After seventeen years on the bench, she retired in 1994 at the age of seventy.
William Mitchell professor Ann Juergens has noted that Wahl wrote 549 opinions for the court. These opinions, Juergens wrote, "are known for their elegant clarity, and for her attention to implementing the will of the legislature, her insistence that the Minnesota courts define state constitutional standards independent of federal standards, and for her sensitivity to the minds and souls of people seeking justice."
Wahl's judicial philosophy rested on a belief in the court's duty to defend underserved groups. A Star Tribune editorial said that Wahl's work on the court's gender fairness and racial bias task forces "led to wide-ranging changes in statutes, judicial education and court procedures, and mitigated what too often had been a hostile courtroom environment for women and minorities."
Wahl was known nationally for her work with the American Bar Association. She sat on its National Conference on Professional Skills and Legal Education, changing the way law schools prepared students for practice and emphasizing skills training. She also oversaw changes in the accreditation standards for law schools. The standards, among other things, focused on skills training for all students.
Rosalie Wahl died on July 22, 2013, at age eighty-eight.
Hogg, James F. "Rosalie Wahl: Her Extraordinary Contributions to Legal Education." William Mitchell Law Review 21, no. 13 (1995): 13–16.
Juergens, Ann. "Rosalie Wahl's Vision for Legal Education: Clinics at the Heart." William Mitchell Law Review 30, no. 1 (2003): 9–34. William Mitchell Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2003–06.
Supreme Court Justices Oral History Project: Interview with Rosalie Erwin Wahl
Oral History Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: This collection (1988) contains oral history interviews of the Minnesota Supreme Court justices. Justices, including Rosalie E. Wahl, discuss their family background, their careers in the field of law, the judicial process, their work, and memorable cases on the Supreme Court. The Wahl interview was also recorded on VHS videotapes that are cataloged as part of the Rosalie Wahl Papers.
Rosalie Wahl Papers, 1958–1998 (bulk 1977–1994)
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: This archival collection (1958–1998) contains personal papers from the judicial chambers of Rosalie Wahl. Included are biographical information; speeches and writings; files regarding her Supreme Court appointment, elections, opinions, and committee work; subject files; and materials related to legal education.
Sandin, Erik. "Wahl Leaves a Legacy in County." Stillwater Gazette, July 24, 2013.
Star Tribune Editorial Board. "Rosalie Wahl's pioneering impact." Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 22, 2013.
Stawicki, Elizabeth, and Jon Collins. "Justice Rosalie Wahl, first woman to serve on Minn. Supreme Court, dies." MPR News. July 22, 2013.
Wahl, Rosalie E. "Introductory Remarks [to the Minnesota Supreme Court Task Force on Racial Bias in the Judicial System Report]." Hamline Law Review 16, no. 3 (Spring 1993): 475–475.
——— . "Lest We Forget: Celebrating Thirty Years of Clinical Legal Education at William Mitchell College of Law." William Mitchell Law Review 30, no. 1 (2003): 5–8.
——— . "Some Reflections on Women and the Judiciary." Law & Inequality 4, no. 1 (May 1986): 153–157.
Rosalie Wahl decides to attend William Mitchell College of Law in 1962. She is thirty-eight and has four children.
Sara Rosalie Erwin is born on August 27 in Gordon, Kansas.
Erwin graduates from the University of Kansas with a degree in sociology in June and marries Ross Wahl in November.
Wahl enters William Mitchell College of Law, graduating five years later.
Wahl becomes an assistant public defender.
Wahl takes the lead in creating a program at William Mitchell for students to act as public defenders for indigent clients facing misdemeanor charges.
Governor Rudy Perpich names Wahl to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Wahl is re-elected to the court.
Wahl is re-elected a second time.
Wahl serves as chair of the American Bar Association's Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.
Wahl is re-elected a third time.
Wahl retires from the Minnesota Supreme Court at age seventy.
Rosalie Wahl dies on July 22 at age eighty-eight.