Gov. Tim Walz announced the appointment of one of his administration’s top attorneys to the Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday.
Karl Procaccini, 40, has spent the last 4.5 years as general counsel and deputy chief of staff in the governor’s office. Depending on who you ask, the Connecticut native and Harvard Law grad has been regarded as either a prudent or overreaching legal advisor to Walz during the Covid-19 pandemic and riots in 2020 and 2021.
One thing is for certain — Procaccini openly considers himself a progressive, and when he joins the Minnesota Supreme Court as an associate justice later this year he will have the rare distinction of being an appointee who was plucked almost directly from the staff of the office of a sitting governor. Procaccini left the governor’s office in June.
“With an exceptional legal mind, Karl navigated Minnesota through one of the most difficult periods in our history,” Walz said in a statement on Wednesday morning. “There is no one more prepared for this important role.”
Procaccini’s appointment as associate justice came the same day that Walz announced he has named Associate Justice Natalie Hudson to take over as chief justice for retiring Lorie Gildea. Hudson becomes the first person of color to serve as chief justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court.
When Procaccini is sworn in he will represent Walz’s second appointee to the bench. He will also be one of two justices without prior judicial experience.
Associate Justice Paul Thissen joined the Supreme Court in 2018 as an appointee of Gov. Mark Dayton. Thissen was a ranking member of the DFL caucus in the Minnesota House of Representatives for nearly two decades. While Procaccini has never sought elected office, he’s donated to several well-known Democrat politicians in recent years.
While Walz’s pick of Procaccini for Supreme Court was praised by Democrat leadership at the legislature, it was roundly criticized by Republicans.
“With the departure of Justice Gildea, Walz had an opportunity to select a pragmatic voice and ensure Minnesotans have a diverse set of views on the Minnesota Supreme Court,” said House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring. “Instead, he picked the chief architect of the 2020 lockdowns and mandates that destroyed businesses and kept our kids out of the classroom with zero judicial experience to serve on the state’s highest court.“
Others who know their way around the Capitol criticized Procaccini for his past representation of PolyMet in its ongoing legal battles over its pursuit of mining permits near the Boundary Waters.
“Only a few weeks after PolyMet lost a unanimous decision at the Minnesota Supreme Court, @GovTimWalz appoints one of PolyMet’s former lawyers to the court,” tweeted Scott Beauchamp, a lobbyist for Friends of the Boundary Waters, which has courted support from several DFL legislators over the last few sessions.
Procaccini campaign donations represents a ‘who’s who’ list of DFLers
Campaign donation recipients Procaccini has given to dating back to 2017 include: his former boss, Walz, Democrat Secretary of State Steve Simon, Democrat U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, Democrat Congressman Dean Phillips, Minnesota House of Representatives DFL Majority Leader Jamie Long, and attorney and DFL Rep. Emma Greenman.
While it’s not unheard of for members of Minnesota’s highest judicial body to leave a trail of partisan political donations on their way to the state Supreme Court, it remains to be seen if Procaccini’s role in the Walz administration will bring with it calls to recuse himself on any cases involving the governor’s office.
Walz has been sued multiple times over the last two-plus years over his executive powers he exercised during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021.
In 2008, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed Christopher Dietzen as associate justice to the Minnesota Supreme Court. Dietzen had previously worked as an attorney for Pawlenty’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign. And in 2009 he was criticized for donations in 2001 and 2004 to U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman’s campaign. Some political pundits and elected officials called for Dietzen to recuse himself from the 2009 Coleman v. Franken recount case that ended up ruling in Franken’s favor. Other past Minnesota Supreme Court appointees with prior political ties include Justice Paul Anderson, who served on Arne Carlson’s campaign committee four years before Carlson appointed him to the bench. Also former Associate Justice Sandy Keith was appointed by DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich in 1989, two decades after he served as lieutenant governor to Karl Rolvaag. Former Associate Justice Helen Meyer had donated to the campaigns of several DFL politicians before she was appointed to the bench by Gov. Jesse Ventura in 2002.
East Coast law student finds footing among Minnesota’s progressives
While Procaccini was raised on the East Coast and attended Harvard as an undergraduate and law student, he found his way to Minnesota more than a decade ago as he and his wife were pursuing job opportunities in the state.
Procaccini, who has been actively involved in the American Constitution Society, a left-leaning legal organization, moderated a September 2020 event honoring retiring Supreme Court Justice David Lillehaug, whom he called “one of the great progressive leaders” of the legal field.
“I’m not from Minnesota, and David Lillehaug was actually the first Minnesota lawyer I met before I moved here,” Procaccini said. “We met back in 2009 at the (American Constitution Society) National Convention in Washington D.C. “
“I remember we went down to the hotel bar and Justice Lillehaug proceeded to give me a rundown of the judges who might be looking for a law clerk. Though we had just met, Justice Lillehaug was generous with his time and his advice, and to this day I remember that conversation fondly, and I remember his generosity in lending his time and advice to somebody who was just getting started in their career.”
Procaccini went on to clerk for Chief Judge Michael J. Davis of the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota and then Justice Diana E. Murphy of the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. He later spent time working as an attorney for Minneapolis-based Greene Espel PLLP.
In 2020 Procaccini was named by the Minneapolis chapter of the ACS as its first ever recipient of the “David Lillehaug Award for Distinguished Leadership” for his “instrumental” work “guiding the State’s response to Covid-19 and the civil unrest in the wake of the George Floyd murder.” He also was named a 2020 Attorney of the Year by Minnesota Lawyer for his work on “creating a peacetime emergency precedent” and as a member of Gov. Walz’s executive order “drafting team.”
But not everyone sees those as positive contributions to the lives and livelihoods of Minnesotans.
“Never been a judge. Never been a prosecutor. Six years of law firm experience. Buds with Walz’s Chief of Staff. Received an award for drafting Walz’s shutdown, mask and vaxx up executive orders,” Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, tweeted following the announcement of Procaccini to the Supreme Court.
‘Research’ for Al Franken book
One other contribution Procaccini made to Minnesota Democrats early in his career: he was a research contributor to Al Franken’s 2003 best-selling book lambasting Republican pundits, “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.”
“Karl took tremendous delight in ferreting out the oddest stuff, including figuring out some of Ann Coulter’s techniques for lying with footnotes,” Franken wrote in the acknowledgements section of his book. “Among others, Karl discovered the ‘overloading Nexis’ method. He found one I didn’t use which he just loved: Coulter savages a writer for using ‘not the sharpest knife in the drawer’ to describe Bush twice in a month, but it turned out it was just the same article published in two newspapers. Sorry I didn’t use that, Karl. He also did a lot of groundwork for the ‘The Lawyer and the Waitress'” (a script for a one-act play about President George W. Bush included in the book).
Hank Long is a journalism and communications professional whose writing career includes coverage of the Minnesota legislature, city and county governments and the commercial real estate industry. Hank received his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, where he studied journalism, and his law degree at the University of St. Thomas. The Minnesota native lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and four children. His dream is to be around when the Vikings win the Super Bowl.