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A Decision Tree Takes Root in the Land of 10,000 Lakes: Minnesota's Approach to Judicial Federalism

62 Pages Posted: 14 Jun 2007  

Paul H. Anderson

Minnesota Supreme Court

Julie A. Oseid

University of St. Thomas School of Law (Minnesota)


This Article examines Minnesota's approach to individual rights when those rights are protected under both the federal and state constitution. In a 2005 voting rights case, Kahn v. Griffin, 701 N.W.2d 815, 824-25 (Minn. 2005), the Minnesota Supreme Court in essence developed a decision-tree approach to decide issues of individual rights. Minnesota's decision-tree approach directs litigants to ask several questions, and follow the path dictated by the answers. More particularly, Minnesota's approach requires litigants and the court to ask a number of questions, each of which leads to a particular path dictated by either a "yes" or "no" answer. The path taken will determine if the Minnesota Supreme Court will (1) interpret its state constitution to be in conformity with the Federal Constitution and federal precedent; or (2) interpret its state constitution in a manner independent of federal precedent.

In essence, the Minnesota Supreme Court will independently interpret and apply the state constitution if either: (1) the state constitution protects a right that does not have an identical or substantially similar federal counterpart; or (2) there is an identical or substantially similar federal counterpart, but either the United States Supreme Court has made a sharp and radical departure from its precedent or federal precedent provides insufficient protection for Minnesota citizens' basic rights and liberties and the Minnesota court does not find a persuasive reason to follow that federal precedent.

Part II of this Article provides a historical overview of judicial federalism, describes the four approaches states have traditionally taken to federal/state constitutional interpretation - lockstep, interstitial, dual sovereignty, and primacy - and reviews the critiques of these four approaches. Part III gives a brief history of judicial federalism in Minnesota, focusing on the state constitution and Minnesota Supreme Court decisions. Part IV considers Kahn v. Griffin, the 2005 voting rights case that provided the vehicle for the Minnesota Supreme Court to develop its decision-tree approach. Part V describes the decision-tree approach and analyzes the guidelines the Minnesota court gives to aid litigants in answering questions required by it. Part VI discusses the advantages and potential critiques of the approach. Finally, this Article concludes that Minnesota's decision tree could serve as a model for other state courts seeking a practical and predictable, middle-ground approach that promotes uniformity and harmony between the federal and state courts.

Keywords: Constitutional law, state constitutional law, constitutional interpretation, individual rights, voting rights, Minnesota Constitution

Suggested Citation

Anderson, Paul H. and Oseid, Julie A., A Decision Tree Takes Root in the Land of 10,000 Lakes: Minnesota's Approach to Judicial Federalism. Albany Law Review, Vol. 70, p. 465, 2006; U of St. Thomas Legal Studies Research Paper No. 07-17. Available at SSRN:

Paul Anderson

Minnesota Supreme Court ( email )

St. Paul, MN
United States

Julie A. Oseid (Contact Author)

University of St. Thomas School of Law (Minnesota) ( email )

MSL 400, 1000 La Salle Avenue
Minneapolis, MN Minnesota 55403-2005
United States

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