Wahl leaves a legacy in county

First woman on Minnesota Supreme Court helped start county’s library system

This painting of former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Wahl hangs at the Washington County Library R.H. Stafford branch in Woodbury. Wahl served on the committee that convinced county officials to start the county library system in the mid-1960s. (Submitted photo)

This painting of former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Wahl hangs at the Washington County Library R.H. Stafford branch in Woodbury. Wahl served on the committee that convinced county officials to start the county library system in the mid-1960s. (Submitted photo)

Rosalie Wahl will be remembered by most Minnesotans as the first woman named to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

But when Washington County residents visit one of the county’s six libraries, they see another Wahl legacy.

Wahl, 88, died Monday morning at Regions Hospital after being taken to the Regions emergency room Sunday night.

Wahl’s passing was felt not only in the legal community, but also by Washington County Library staff and supporters.

“I am saddened by the passing of Justice Wahl,” said WCL Executive Director Patricia Conley. “Rosalie Wahl was part of a key committee of interested citizens who were interested in forming the Washington County library.”

Wahl was born and raised in Kansas and attended the University of Kansas. Wahl lived in Lake Elmo after moving to Minnesota and in the middle 1950s, she joined a group trying to establish a county library system, Conley said.

At that time, Conley said the county had several city-run libraries. The group Wahl was on wanted to expand libraries into the county, Conley added.

“She was extremely supportive of the library. She wanted every citizen of the county to have access to books,” Conley said.

It took that citizen’s group more than a decade before county officials established the county library system in 1966, Conley said. The first county libraries opened in Lake Elmo and Marine on St. Croix in 1968, Conley added.

Wahl’s effort to get county officials to establish a county library system was a factor that convinced Wahl to enroll at the William Mitchell College of Law at age 38, Conley said.

“One of the major impetuses for her going to law school was her frustration dealing with local government officials,” Conley said.

Wahl graduated from William Mitchell in 1967 and worked as a state public defender. She returned to the St. Paul law school in 1973 as a professor and was named to the state Supreme Court in 1977 by then-Gov. Rudy Perpich.

Wahl headed two Supreme Court task forces that studied race and gender bias in the state’s judicial system. Among the court’s many recommendations: that all judges and court personnel receive training on victims’ rights and cultural diversity; prosecution and defense offices work to improve minority recruitment; and the Legislature establish programs to aid domestic-abuse victims.

“Rosalie Wahl was a trailblazer for our state, both as a lawyer and as the first woman to serve on the Minnesota Supreme Court,” Minnesota Chief Justice Lori S. Gildea said in a statement. “She will be remembered with fondness and respect for her unwavering commitment to the principle of equal justice for all.”

Gov. Mark Dayton also praised Wahl for her service on the state’s high court in a brief statement.

“Justice Rosalie Wahl overcame barriers throughout her life to achieve remarkable success,” Dayton said. “Minnesota owes Justice Wahl a great debt of gratitude for her exceptional service. Our thoughts are with her family during this difficult time.”
Washington County residents see the benefits of Wahl’s work every time they visit a county library, Conley said.

“Her vision, and the vision of her co-committee members has been realized,” Conley said of Wahl. “She had a strong commitment to education, a strong commitment to rural life.”

The county recognized Wahl’s support of the WCL by naming the then-Lake Elmo branch in Wahl’s honor. That branch closed in 2012 when the Lake Elmo City Council voted to leave the county system and set up its own city-run public library.

Conley said there currently is no plan to name another WCL branch in Wahl’s honor. But if the WCL builds another branch, Conley said naming it after Wahl would be strongly considered.

“She had a vision that was county-wide. It makes no difference where the facility was located, her commitment was county-wide. Her role in establishing and supporting the Washington County Library remains a model of what an educated library supporter should be,” Conley said.

Contact Erik Sandin at erik.sandin@ecm-inc.com

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