Published August 16, 2004
In the corner of an office at the Minnesota Judicial Center -- tucked away from the pictures and posters of the occupant's heroes Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Bobby Kennedy and Paul Robeson -- hangs a framed New York Times crossword puzzle from March 2002.
Former President Bill Clinton solved the puzzle and sent it along with a personal note "from your crossword friend" to the man whose name was the answer for 38 down: NFL Hall of Famer elected to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Justice Alan Page chuckles at the mention of one more proof of a life filled with "a lot of good fortune -- a wonderful wife, four fabulous children, a football career that I suspect most people could only dream of and the opportunity to serve on this court for the last 12 years."
The Minnesota Supreme Court has seldom harbored the sort of celebrity whose name turns up in crossword puzzles or on ex-presidents' correspondence lists. But Page has ridden his fame to two landslide elections to the state high court and what has to be odds-on favorite status in a third on Nov. 2.
He has done it, almost paradoxically, as a quiet, bow-tied model of judicial restraint, the near-antithesis of either a star athlete or a politician.
True to a strategy of focusing on his own assignment that he claims to have practiced as an All-Pro defensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings, Page says he won't engage his latest election rival, Tim Tingelstad, a Bemidji child-support magistrate and evangelical church leader who is campaigning on his adherence to biblical principles.
Page, by contrast, won't divulge his religion or even whether he goes to church. He says he won't criticize or comment on his opponent. And despite a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling easing restrictions on what judicial candidates can say, Page won't discuss his views on legal and political issues.
"We take an oath to be impartial," he said. "If I were to announce my views, it would make it that much more difficult to step back and question myself. You have to have the ability to walk away from your own particular preferences if you are going to be impartial."
That's classic Alan Page: eloquent, self-minimizing, but fiercely stubborn when it comes to defending his position.
For nearly a century, judicial elections have occupied a dark backwater of Minnesota politics -- officially nonpartisan, usually uncontested, and held only to confirm a governor's appointments to the bench.
Page shook up that comfortable system in 1992 when he took legal action to ensure that a vacant Supreme Court seat would be filled by the electorate for the first time in a generation, then handily won at the polls over a foe who questioned his qualifications.
Six years later, he rolled up 1.3 million votes, then a state record, in trouncing a challenger who accused him of conflicts of interest stemming from the multimillion-dollar Page Education Foundation minority scholarship fund.
Characteristically, Page mostly ignored those attacks. Now, as the senior member of the high court, he is a leading defender of the system against those who would open it to unfettered partisan politicking.
"The judiciary simply cannot be impartial or trusted when party politics encourages judges to behave as traditional politicians," he said in a speech to the National Press Club. "Whereas executive and legislative officials commit themselves to enacting their political agendas, a judge's role is to interpret the law fairly and ensure due process to every litigant."Some would say, however, that Page's brand of impartiality leans distinctly to the left. Before joining the court, he worked for DFL Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III, and he has long enjoyed the support of leading DFL politicians. Page says he attended one DFL caucus in his Kenwood precinct of Minneapolis in the 1970s, found the process "painful" and never went back.
Still, Page was widely mentioned in 2002 as a possible Democratic candidate to replace the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone.
"If you look at his decisions, he has a very liberal outlook on life," said Greg Wersal, an avowed Republican who has run unsuccessfully for the Supreme Court. He criticized Page's support of rulings that gave poor women the right to state-financed abortions and broadened the rights of criminal defendants.
Others see Page's judicial record in a more positive light.
"I'd describe him as an Earl Warren-Thurgood Marshall-William Douglas liberal," said Hennepin County District Judge Jack Nordby. "He's sensitive to individual rights vs. the power of government and corporations. His opinions tend to be pretty sound, and he's quite consistent in his views. Most others on that court bounce all over the place."
'Lot of hostility'
Nordby also said that Page is "extraordinarily important historically" as the only black, in fact the only member of any racial minority, to serve on Minnesota's high court. Among the 83 Supreme Court justices in state history, Nordby said, "no governor has ever appointed anybody but a white gentile."
Page has crusaded against racial bias in the legal system in both his jurisprudence and the Supreme Court's administrative rules. Wersal says Page is behind the court's mandatory diversity training for trial judges and lawyers, which Wersal says has engendered "a lot of hostility in the legal community."
Page isn't fazed by such criticism. He says he knows there's a problem from his own experience of being stopped by police "two or three times, for no good reason" and from a Supreme Court task force report that found that people of color are arrested more often than whites, charged with crimes more often and given higher bails, tougher plea bargains, less fair trials and far longer sentences.
"Our criminal justice system at times seems more interested in putting people of color in jail than helping them succeed," he said in a May commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame. "Living in a color-blind society should not require that we live in a society that is blind to racial bias."That philosophy has led to some of the most scathing of his 120 dissents from the court's majority opinions, by far the most of any current justice. The issues have involved school funding disparities between white and minority areas, racial bias in jury selection, even the case of a 16-year-old murder suspect who was tried as a juvenile, Page said, only because he was white. Similarly situated blacks invariably are sent to adult court, he said.
Other Page dissents have come over lawyer discipline that he considered too lenient and sex offender civil commitment that he deemed too draconian.
He also has fought racial disparity through the Page Education Foundation minority scholarship fund that he and his wife, Diane Sims Page, founded in 1988. Since then, more than 2,000 Minnesota minority students have received $4.5 million in college scholarships raised by the foundation.
Zen of football
Alan Cedric Page, 59, was born and raised in the steel mill city of Canton, Ohio, the fourth of four children of Howard and Georgianna Page. His father was a bartender and owner-operator of jukeboxes and vending machines, his mother an attendant at a golf club.
Except for his mother's death when he was 14, Page describes his childhood as uneventful. He had little interest in sports in grade school, partly because he was always the last kid picked for playground teams. In fourth grade, long before he had an inkling of a football career, he decided he wanted to be a lawyer.
His goal seemed attainable because he was a good student, at least until ninth grade, when he became an undersized 185-pound lineman on the beefy Canton Central Catholic High School football team. Page's Baptist parents sent all their children there in search of a better education than Canton's public schools offered.
He tried football only because his older brother was on the team, but quickly discovered a love and talent for it. And he began to develop his Zen-like approach to the game: Don't worry about the opponent; just cover your assignment, read your keys and react.
Otherwise, he said, "there's a tendency to want to perform at the level of the opponent. I think that's a prescription for mediocrity."
Page has never been mediocre. With extraordinary speed and quickness, he became, in the words of ex-University of Minnesota coach Murray Warmath, "the greatest college prospect I have ever seen." Warmath lost the prized recruit, however, to Ara Parseghian at Notre Dame, where Page was an All-American on the undefeated 1966 Irish national champions.
The next spring, he graduated with a degree in political science and was drafted in the first round by the Vikings. Stardom and four Super Bowl appearances in the middle of the Minnesota "Purple People Eaters" defensive line followed.
Life after football
Amid all the glory, though, Page was bored. He had shown his independent streak as early as his first Vikings training camp by refusing to guzzle beer in a rookie hazing ritual. He started law school in his second year in the NFL. He rose to leadership of the NFL players' union. He took up distance running and became the first active NFL player to complete a marathon.
He clashed famously with Vikings coach Bud Grant over his weight, his running and his legal pursuits. Four games into the 1978 season, the team cut him. He spent the next three years as a member of both the Chicago Bears and the Minneapolis law firm of Lindquist & Vennum.
After his football career ended in 1981, he began applying to be appointed a judge but was repeatedly rejected by Gov. Rudy Perpich's selection commission. Uncomfortable with drumming up law clients, he switched to the attorney general's office in 1985 as a specialist in employment law.
With the Page Foundation, Page got "very much involved in raising funds and very much didn't like it," he said. His election to the Supreme Court four years later "gave me a good excuse to get out of the fundraising business."
Now, he says, he doesn't even check who contributes to either the foundation or his election campaigns. Skeptics doubt that, but Page says "not knowing who gives makes life eminently simpler than knowing." As long as he is not aware of the generosity of litigants before the court, he says, he won't have to recuse himself from their cases.
His detachment does not extend to ignoring Tingelstad's campaign Web site (www.highesthill.com), which is replete with references to the Bible and a divine calling to run for the court. Page's site (www.alanpage.org) is less colorful and extensive, bearing a campaign slogan -- "A Justice for All" -- his résumé, texts of two speeches and little else.
"I don't view myself as being opposed to whoever the opponent may be," Page said. "My job is to tell people who I am: Do I work hard, am I qualified, am I impartial? I approached football the same way. It worked very, very well."Conrad deFiebre is at email@example.com
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