Minnesota Supreme Court appointee Gordon Moore ’85

Here Comes the Judge

By George Spencer
Minnesota Supreme Court appointee Gordon Moore ’85 says his experience as a southern Minnesota jurist gave him “a knowledge and deep respect for all types of citizens, including the fourth-generation farmer, as well as the first-generation immigrant.”

When Gordon Moore ’85 became the Minnesota Supreme Court’s newest associate justice in May, Governor Tim Walz told Minnesota Public Radio that his first appointee to the seven-member court was a “brilliant jurist and a leader in his community.” Walz also explained that Moore’s experience as a district judge in the agriculturally rich Nobles County, home to a rapidly growing immigrant population in Worthington, Minnesota, made the Rochester native especially suited to replace respected Justice David Lillehaug (who retired early due to illness) and serve the state’s increasingly diverse citizenry.

A longtime public servant who cut his teeth serving on his local public school board and working in the Minnesota attorney general’s office, Moore studied history as an undergraduate at Carleton before earning a law degree at the University of Iowa in 1988. “Carleton gave me the confidence to know I could go out in the world and do something for the public good,” he says.

We caught up with Moore on the phone in mid-September, as the court was in the midst of its 2020–21 docket.

Who was your biggest influence growing up?

My late father. He was an adult psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic. He was wise, nonjudgmental, patient, kind, and empathetic with people in difficult situations. We often joked he should have been a lawyer given his gently persuasive, Atticus Finch–like manner. I try to take his approach as a judge. Sadly, because he suffered the crippling effects of Lewy body dementia, I never had the opportunity to talk with him about becoming a judge prior to his death.

How did Carleton affect your future?

It had a profound impact. The focus of its liberal arts education on the development of my critical thinking and writing skills served me well in law school and in my career. More important, thanks to my work on the Carletonian, I met my wife, Jane Turpin Moore ’87. She was a features section editor and seemed to like my writing. I found out later that that was mostly because my writing was verbose and helped fill her column space.

Which judges do you most admire?

Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg overcame incredible odds, institutional biases, and society’s prejudices to litigate history-making cases prior to assuming their trailblazing roles on the Supreme Court. I also admire Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, and David Souter for their temperaments, collegiality, and thoughtfulness. All showed the importance of having an independent voice on the court not beholden to the views of the party of the president who appointed them.

What can American jurisprudence learn from other nations’ legal systems?

Our legal system has withstood the test of time so far, but as in any governmental entity, weaknesses within it have been exposed. The American judicial system has encountered serious issues of racial inequity and injustice in our country for many years, issues that are acutely relevant today. One area where we could learn from other nations’ legal systems involves our relatively high rate of recidivism. As a district court judge, I was frustrated to see certain people cycle continuously through the court system. But in the court systems of the Netherlands and Portugal, they treat drug possession, for example, as more of a public health problem than a criminal issue and focus resources on treatment programs. I’m not necessarily advocating for that approach, but we could learn something from it.

Is there equal justice under law in America?

As a judge, I believe there is a sincere effort to mete out equal justice occurring daily in Minnesota’s courtrooms. The broader question of “equal justice under law” in this country is a work in progress to achieve a more perfect justice system, which involves the work of many court stakeholders, such as law enforcement, prosecutors, probation, and attorneys. Much effort has occurred to study and expose bias and unfairness in all parts of the justice system. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to make it more perfect and, where necessary, more responsive to legitimate concerns expressed by persons in communities who have been marginalized or unheard over time by the justice system.

What advice do you have about how to make wise decisions?

Judges instruct jurors to rely on the type of facts and evidence they’d consider when making life’s most important decisions—and on their own common sense: reject baseless evidence and incredible testimony, and be very skeptical of information you yourself wouldn’t rely on. I’d counsel most people to make decisions similarly. Consider information based on its source—avoid manipulative social media posts and biased media sources.

How do you keep being a judge from going to your head?

It’s vital to stay humble. In Minnesota’s courts, judges must stand for election, a check and balance on what legal professionals call “black robe disease,” where judges believe they’re infallible. If you get to that point, you have a serious emperor has no clothes–type problem, which is never good. And while I’ve been a judge for eight and a half years, I’m new to this position, so I don’t feel experienced enough to let anything go to my head. I’m the junior member of this court, learning every day, and the other justices have been generous with helpful advice.

What’s your favorite law-related movie?

My Cousin Vinny. It pokes fun at certain types of lawyers and judges while providing an extremely realistic depiction of courtroom procedure and trial strategy. Unlike many legal movies, it depicts things that can and often do happen in real courtrooms. It allows those of us in the legal profession to laugh at ourselves a little while still taking our work seriously.

Do you have a motto?

At the end of every lecture, Carleton economics professor Bob Will ’50 would tell us, “Onward and upward with the arts.” I’ve used it to embrace the need to persist in the face of challenges in life and maintain perspective. “Keep calm and carry on” also has a prominent place in my chambers.

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