Rosalie Wahl

William Mitchell remembers Rosalie Wahl ’67

The William Mitchell community is mourning the loss of the jurist who paved the way for women in Minnesota’s legal community. Rosalie Wahl ’67 passed away July 22. She is being remembered as an inspirational leader who broke through barriers on her way to becoming the first woman on Minnesota’s Supreme Court.

Rosalie Wahl

Rosalie Wahl

“Rosalie Wahl’s  legacies are many. She showed us all how to lead and how to make a difference in our communities and in the legal system,” said Eric S. Janus, William Mitchell’s dean. “For me, she was a person whose devotion to justice and inclusion, borne of her own life-circumstances, spoke powerfully to open the legal profession to women, and to work toward justice for people who had been excluded. She was a leader at William Mitchell College of Law in developing our practical approach to legal education, and she helped legal education nationally acknowledge the importance of skills-education in producing effective and ethical legal practitioners.”

Justice Wahl was born Sara Rosalie Ervin on Aug. 27, 1924, in Gordon, Kansas. Her mother died when Rosalie was just a toddler, and she moved in with her grandparents. After graduating from the University of Kansas and getting married in 1946, she and her husband and children moved to Minnesota in 1949, eventually settling in Lake Elmo. In 1962, at the age of 38 and “tired of sitting outside doors waiting for the men inside to make the decisions,” Wahl enrolled at William Mitchell College of Law. She had four children at the time; her fifth was born during law school, where she was one of only two women in her class.

Memorial Service Information

A public memorial service will be held on September 21, 2013 at 10:00 a.m. at Central Lutheran Church, 333 South 12th Street, Minneapolis, MN 55404 (downtown Minneapolis). Parking is available on the south side of the church. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the Southern Law Poverty Center, the William Mitchell College of Law Rosalie Wahl Law Clinic Fund, or to a charity of your choice.

After graduating in 1967, she worked for the state as an assistant public defender and in 1973 accepted a professorship at William Mitchell, where she directed the clinical legal education program.

Gov. Rudy Perpich appointed Justice Wahl to the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1977, making her the first woman to sit on the state’s highest court. A couple of years into her tenure, she was mentioned as a possible candidate to become the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court. While on the Minnesota Supreme Court, Justice Wahl served as its liaison to the Court’s Study Commission on the Mentally Disabled and chaired its task forces on gender fairness and racial bias. She remained on the court until she retired in 1994 at the mandatory age of 70.

Rosalie Wahl, Minnesota Supreme Court

Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert J. Sheran swears in Rosalie Wahl with Gov. Rudy Perpich looking on in 1977.

Justice Wahl was known nationally for supporting women lawyers and encouraging the appointment of women as judges, winning many awards honoring her commitment. But it wasn’t just women who Justice Wahl championed. She had a reputation as the voice for those living on the edges of society—the poor, the accused, the powerless, the persecuted. Her judicial opinions were marked by a blend of scholarship and compassion, speaking up for those who could not.

She is also nationally recognized as a pioneer in clinical legal education and William Mitchell named its expanded legal practice center in her honor in 2003. Many of the standards used in legal education today are the result of her leadership and recommendations. Her work emphasized practical skills education and the idea that lawyers should be taught to be more sensitive, tolerant and passionate—in other words, use their hearts in addition to their brains. She did much of that work whiling serving as chair of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.

Throughout her groundbreaking career, she stressed the importance of persistence in righting injustice, saying, “We made progress but you have to keep working at it, because if you turn around and look the other way, it’ll just all go back to the way it was.”

Read more about Rosalie Wahl:

Justice Rosalie Wahl, first woman to serve on the Minnesota Supreme Court, dies
Obituary from Minnesota Public Radio

Legal Legend: Rosalie Wahl in Mitchell on Law

Rosalie Wahl’s pioneering impact
Editorial from the Star Tribune

Rosalie Wahl, first woman on Minnesota Supreme Court, dies
Obituary from the Pioneer Press

Rosalie Wahl oversaw transformative changes in legal education
Tribute to Justice Wahl by Prof. Ann Juergens from MinnPost