Turning the Page
A few months before retiring from the state Supreme Court, Justice Alan Page sat down with us to look back at his judicial career
Published in 2015 Minnesota Super Lawyers magazine
By Ross Pfund on July 7, 2015
Q: What do you think you will miss the most after you leave the court?
A: The most? All of it. The work that the court does is fascinating, challenging and I love every bit of it. Not being a part of it will be a bit of a loss.
Q: What qualities does it take to be successful as a justice?
A: Hard work, obviously. Intellectual curiosity; openness to hearing what the parties have to say. Being able to exercise your judgment and working very hard not to simply impose your will. Being able to focus on the particular problem that you’re dealing with and navigate through that problem in ways that give you an answer but don’t cause unforeseen problems down the road.
Q: Is it challenging to think into the future this way?
A: One of the things that I’ve discovered is that the longer I’m here, the more challenging it gets, because I can see more—see the potential for more problems or concerns by what we do today—than I could back when I first started. I always thought things would get easier. That’s not the way it’s worked out.
Q: Is it also a challenge to not be paralyzed by that foresight?
A: Not a challenge at all. You explore all the possibilities you can see. I think the key thing is being very clear about what you’re addressing so that those who take your opinions and use them don’t have to guess, don’t have to try to anticipate where you were going or what you were trying to do. The challenge is to say it clearly, and I find that part of the work fascinating.
Q: At this point, you’ve been a justice for many more years than you were a practicing attorney, but do you think that these qualities are different from the ones it would take to be a good attorney?
A: I think in many respects the qualities are the same—the application may be a little bit different. One of the things that is important for a justice on this court is to understand that you’re not an advocate. Your role is to figure out what the best answer is to the particular problem, whereas when you’re a practicing attorney, you advocate for one side or the other. Well, that’s not what we do; that’s not what we should be doing.
Q: Have you ever run into a moment where you wished you could have been an advocate for something, despite the fact that you knew you couldn’t be?
A: I haven’t run into the moment where I wish I could have the world my way, mainly because I know that I can’t and that’s not my role. They say our role is to exercise our judgment and not our will, and it’s absolutely critical that whoever serves on this court understands that. You have to be able to make decisions that on a personal level you wouldn’t necessarily agree with. You have to be able to do that, because that’s our function.
Q: In other interviews, you’ve said that you’ll leave it to others to determine which cases you’ve heard over the years are the most important or most significant. Why is that?
A: I’m not here to quantify how important they are or not, and I think if a judge starts doing that, then they start putting their thumb on the scale. “This one’s more important than that one, so I’ll spend more time at it, I’ll work harder to get it right. I’ll work harder to get the result that I want.” You start doing that and it becomes problematic. At least, that’s my view of the world. Others, obviously, could disagree.
And besides that, they’re all important. These cases involve real people with real problems and far be it from me to say that one person’s issues are more important than another’s.
Q: So it’s important to come at cases fairly from an effort standpoint.
A: Absolutely. You literally have to approach each one until it gets filed with an openness that allows you to change your views. And once you start thinking “This is important” and “I’ve got to make sure I get this one right,” well, that suggests that maybe you’re not going to work that hard to get the next one right, or some other one right. That’s just not a good way to function.
Q: How often have you changed your views after really getting into a case?
A: It doesn’t happen every day, but it does happen. I don’t know that I’ve ever looked at the numbers, but [it happens] probably more often than one might think. And even though you might end up with the same view of the outcome, how you get there and what you say along the way may change. And sometimes you work through something and you have a view of it and it just doesn’t work, so you’re forced to change. Other times, somebody says something or you read something that causes you to look at the issue in a slightly different way that leads you to a different conclusion.
That’s one of the beauties of working with six other people. When you have seven people in a room trying to get it right as best they see it, and that they see it from a slightly different perspective, it enriches your view and helps you understand in a better way. And then the writing process refines that even more, and oftentimes in the process your views can change. It’s been a learning process from day one.
Q: And so leaving aside the question of significance or importance, are there any cases that are particularly memorable for you?
A: Oh, there are any number of them that come to mind. Sometimes we make very difficult decisions with results that you don’t like at all. Having to reverse a conviction when there’s been a brutal crime committed and you have a strong sense that the [convicted] person is guilty, yet it’s clear from what took place at the trial that they didn’t get a fair trial, and that they’re entitled to that and so you have to reverse your conviction. Those are always difficult.
I had a case early on that was a question of statutory construction, a statute that made no sense. There wasn’t much you could do to make sense out of it, and it’s like you want to throw up your hands and walk away, except you don’t get to do that. You have to be able to come to a conclusion on what it means in a way that is true to what—at least as best you can determine—the legislature was trying to accomplish. Thank goodness, we figured out a way to do it, but it was not pleasant getting there.
Q: What advice would you give lawyers who are arguing a case before the court?
A: First of all, in your brief, be brief. Be clear, be concise, and as far as arguments go, when you get asked a question, answer the question. Don’t assume it’s a trick question; don’t assume that the person asking the question is out to trip you up or disagrees with you. I ask questions because I need to know the answer to help me make my decision.
Think about the one question you don’t want to hear and have an answer for it, because you’re probably going to get it. You have seven people up there who have studied your briefs and the law and are pretty up-to-speed, and so they’re going to be concerned about various and sundry issues. We need answers to those questions so we can make a decision that accounts for the myriad of concerns that may be presented.
Q: It’s surprising to hear that some attorneys will ascribe negative intent to the questions they’re asked.
A: Oh, that’s the other thing. Don’t be hostile. You’re trying to get us to rule in your favor. The idea is to help us, and we’re asking questions so you can help us. If I ask a question and you disagree with the premise of the question, explain to me why I’m wrong and I’ll listen to that. I want to know why I’m wrong or if I’m wrong. Don’t try to avoid the question; don’t answer the question you want answered. Answer the question we asked.
Q: You’d think “don’t be hostile” would be common sense.
A: You would think that, wouldn’t you? But it doesn’t always work that way.
Q: Who were your mentors growing up and in your various careers?
A: My parents, my family. They are the ones that I looked up to. The reality is that most of us are influenced by those who we can talk to, who we can reach out and touch, and who is that for young children? Parents and family. This notion that athletes and entertainers and celebrities have a big impact—maybe they do, maybe they don’t. But it’s not nearly the impact of the people immediately around us.
In my football career, the people that taught me how to be a football player were Jim Marshall, Carl Eller, Gary Larsen, Paul Dickson, people like that. And in my legal career it was Leonard Lindquist, Gene Keating, Ed Glennon, Ed Garvey from Lindquist & Vennum. They all taught me what being a lawyer was all about. I came out of law school and I didn’t have a clue, and they were instrumental in getting me going down the right path.
Q: Regarding your law school days, how were you able to balance your studies with your football career?
A: Lots of people work and go to law school, and for me the challenge was more going to school during the season, finding classes that I could take at times when I was available to take them. It worked out pretty well.
Q: And of course you had a bit more celebrity than the average law student. Did that affect your education?
A: You know what, from my vantage point, it didn’t affect it for me. I mean, I am just who I am. It may have had some effect on others, but I didn’t spend a lot of time worried about that. I was going to law school so I could learn and understand the law. And so the fact that I had some celebrity, it’s just a fact of life that I haven’t spent a lot of time worried about.
Q: Have you put any thought into what you would like your legal legacy to be?
A: Again, I will leave that for others, quite frankly, as I have left it for others with respect to my athletic career. I have done, hopefully, the best that I can do and what others think about that, they will think about it.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: Hopefully, continued growing and learning. Clearly, it’s going to be a work in progress and, hopefully, it’ll be exciting and challenging. Beyond that, I don’t have it nailed down. Obviously, I’ll be involved on a much greater basis with the Page Education Foundation. Hopefully I will be doing some other interesting and exciting things also. And somewhere along the way, I suppose my family would like me to share time with them. I look forward to that.
This interview was edited and condensed.
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