Keith Ellison reshaping attorney general's office with eye on criminal justice

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Derek Chauvin's murder conviction represented for many a rare moment of justice in the nation's long history of police brutality. It also underscored the dramatic transformation of the Minnesota Attorney General's Office under Keith Ellison.

Long focused on consumer protection, the office is rapidly becoming a major player in criminal justice in the state — a shift that is attracting national attention.

"We definitely want to be there to direct more criminal prosecutions, and we need more people so we can meet more needs," said Ellison, who is asking the Legislature for 11 new prosecutors to rebuild its criminal division this year.

Since taking office more than two years ago, Ellison has helped lead a task force on deadly police encounters that produced new reform proposals. He also is reviving efforts to study hate crimes amid rising reports of bias attacks against Asian Americans. And his office is leading new initiatives on post-conviction reviews and expungement — a practice that means a criminal record is sealed or erased in the eyes of the law.

"If this is the next wave of the civil rights movement for this country, if you will, then he's a key player in that," Gov. Tim Walz said.

Ellison's recent success in the courtroom has led to calls from community activists for his office to take on more police prosecutions. His influence among the nation's attorneys general also is on the rise.

"Life is going to change for him," said former Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson, who is a member of a conviction review unit Ellison started. "He's going to be more prominent with his leadership [nationally], and he is going to be asked to weigh in on critical issues."

Anderson added, "What he has to say now has increasing weight and I will be interested to see how he handles it."

Ellison said in an interview that while he won't rule out running for another office one day, he remains focused on the job he has now.

Although the three other ex-officers involved in George Floyd's death are awaiting trial, Chauvin's conviction already is carrying broader implications for Ellison.

Sean Rankin, executive director of the Democratic Attorneys General Association, said the verdict is spurring his organization to double down on "recruiting, supporting and electing more Democratic attorneys general across the country." More than 30 state AG races are on the ballot next year, including Ellison's.

"The election of Keith Ellison to Minnesota Attorney General in 2018 contributed directly to Derek Chauvin being held accountable for the murder of George Floyd and provided a sign of hope to millions of Americans — especially communities of color — that those in power can move our country farther along the path towards justice and fairness for all," Rankin said in a statement. "That is a political investment that generates a return for every American."

Ellison's decision to add more severe charges against Chauvin and to charge the other three officers — each scheduled for trial in August — was far from a slam dunk before last month's conviction.

Richard Allyn, a former chief deputy attorney general who helped Ellison transition into office in 2019, was struck by how Ellison stood by his charging decisions and remained publicly attached to the case throughout the process.

"A lot of politicians would not want to do that," Allyn said. "They would want to distance themselves in case it did not turn out good. But Keith laid it on the line."

Other observers note that, even with the staff he now has, Ellison's imprint on the office is becoming clearer more than halfway through his first term.

"People often talk about the AG's office and some of the history of the AG's office as being really the preeminent law firm in Minnesota," said Lola Velazquez-Aguilu, one of several pro-bono attorneys assisting with prosecuting the officers involved in Floyd's death. "With the work on this Chauvin prosecution, what you saw was really exceptional management of the legal team by Keith Ellison and also an expectation for the kinds of legal services and the quality of legal services that he believes the state of Minnesota is entitled to."

Ben Crump, an attorney for both Floyd and Daunte Wright's families, described the recent prosecution as the "best case I've ever seen of a police officer for killing a Black person unjustly in the United States of America."

"I hope that what Attorney General Ellison and the Minnesota Attorney General's Office accomplished will set a new precedent for attorneys general offices all over America," Crump said.

For at least two decades before Ellison took over, the attorney general's office was known more for cases on predatory lending, for-profit colleges and environmental matters such as the $850 million settlement with 3M over groundwater contamination.

Those areas remain priorities under Ellison, who also wants to beef up the office's wage theft enforcement capabilities. Ellison also is leading a new task force that plans to recommend policy changes to advance women's economic security.

But he wants to return the office's criminal division to the stature it held in the 1990s under Hubert Humphrey III when it had 12 full-time criminal attorneys. Just one remained when Ellison took office.

Mike Hatch, who served as attorney general from 1999 to 2007, said the attorney general's priorities adjust to the times. He launched a sweeping review of health care practices in the state in the early 2000s and his successor, Lori Swanson, entered office during the Great Recession.

"Sometimes you get to have some proactive activity, but it is a reactive office," Hatch said. "You have to take the cards that are dealt to you, and [Ellison] has done a very good job of handling Chauvin and he's certainly been passionate about the COVID business."

Ellison's budget request this year faces an uphill climb. The GOP-controlled Senate has vowed since last year to seek retribution for his enforcement of Walz's executive orders during the pandemic. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka's initial budget offer to House Democrats proposed to waive penalties for businesses that violated the orders.

Ellison also is facing a possible rematch of his contentious 2018 run with Republican Doug Wardlow.

Wardlow's early campaign has blamed Ellison for not adequately responding to violent crime spikes, something more commonly handled by county prosecutors. Wardlow also seized on Ellison's recent comments in favor of international watchdogs reviewing policing in America.

Those comments, Wardlow wrote in an editorial for the conservative Newsmax website, "seem calculated to sow division and advance the false narrative about systemic racism in our justice system."

His voice weary from a recent national media circuit after Chauvin's conviction, Ellison said the case showed "I tried to be of service to the community when needed, that we led with our values and ran the risk that things could go in an unpredictable direction."

"As I reflect on it," he added, "if we had not won what it would mean is that there is no accountability, that some people can treat anyone however they want. Even kill them, and the system doesn't really respond to do something about it."

smontemayor@startribune.com 612-673-1755 • Twitter: @smontemayor

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