fbpx Elise Larson reflects on path from MCEA attorney to Minnesota Court of Appeals judge | Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy
Jun 22, 2022

Elise Larson reflects on path from MCEA attorney to Minnesota Court of Appeals judge

After serving as a powerhouse attorney on MCEA’s legal team for the past five years, senior staff attorney and water program director Elise Larson stepped down from the role to step into a big new one: Minnesota Court of Appeals judge.

Larson was appointed to the prestigious position by Governor Tim Walz at the end of April, and will be officially sworn in at a private investiture ceremony July 1. Shortly before her last day at MCEA, Larson sat down to reflect a little on her time at MCEA and share how she’s feeling about what lies ahead for her, as well as Minnesota’s water.  

Q: First of all, congratulations on this huge honor. Can you say a little bit about what it was like to first get the call from Gov. Walz with the news and how you’re feeling now that it’s settled in a little more?

A: I was a little speechless. I probably said thank you too many times, just because I am so honored. It’s all still a little surreal, honestly … But I am just really excited to serve the state and I think that I bring some unique experiences and skills that will serve the state of Minnesota well. It feels like a strike of lightning kind of moment;  so few people get to have an opportunity like this.

Q: How do you think your time at MCEA helped prepare you for this role? 

A: From a professional standpoint, MCEA really trusts its lawyers, even when they are young, to be leaders and really empowers them to become leaders. That really helps you to develop confidence and skills quickly. There are pros and cons to that, of course, pros in the sense that you get to be independent and learn quickly but the con is, “Holy Cow, I have to figure out how to do this - fast.” But putting that trust in me, investing in me, and believing in my success was a tremendous gift from MCEA.  

Also, all of the state’s administrative law cases go through the Minnesota Court of Appeals, and I’ve basically been doing nothing but administrative law for the last 5 years at MCEA. So I learned a ton about appeals, but also a lot about administrative law that makes me unique.

Q: Speaking of the interview process, can you pull back the curtain a little bit and share what that was like for you? 

A: You start with a lengthy application that is very detailed and includes a 5-page writing sample.  When you get past the application (round) they do a very lengthy background check on you and then you do an interview with the selection commission. The commission picks four finalists to recommend (to Walz). And then you interview with Walz and Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan. 

Q: How did you feel heading into your interview with the Governor? 

A: I was well prepared, so I wasn’t nervous. That is just my philosophy in general: you prepare for things the best you can and then hopefully by the time you get there you’re ready and you know what you would like to say. I actually never get nervous for interviews; I find them kind of fun. 

Q: Why do you want to be a judge? 

A: I have had the real privilege in my life to work for 3 fine judges who instilled in me the desire to be a judge, not because the job looks easy but because I’ve seen firsthand that good judges can make a big difference in our society. A judge’s job really is the pursuit of justice and the rule of law. Judge’s have the privilege and the responsibility to ensure our processes are fair, that parties feel heard, and that the public has confidence in our democracy. To me there is no higher professional calling. 

Prior to joining MCEA, Larson clerked for three judges and also served as an attorney in the private sector. Her clerkships included working for Chief Justice Lorie Gildea on the Minnesota Supreme Court, Judge Myron Bright on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit and Chief Judge John Tunheim on the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota. Larson also credits those experiences for propelling her toward her new role. 

I love figuring out a law’s intent, not just: “Here is the position my client wants to take and this is the best argument I can make for them.” That’s why I clerked for 3 judges… Every single day I got to read the arguments and try to figure out the intent of the law writers, and to me that is very cool. 

Q: What do you think makes a good judge, or an effective judge? 

A:  The job of a judge is to apply the law to the facts in a case. I think that the judges who are the most effective are the judges who can approach those questions without their own preconceptions of what the results should be. The ones who come to the issue from a neutral perspective, because that means they are open to being persuaded by the arguments of the parties. I think that neutrality can be really challenging, right, because judges are people; but the judges who have the biggest impact are really good at that and it makes a big difference, because you see and consider all the different angles of an issue. 

Q: What will you miss about being an attorney at MCEA?

A: I will miss arguing cases because I think that is fun. I will miss the client relationships, especially the clients who want to protect something and are super passionate about it and really want to make a difference; there’s something really inspiring about working with people like that. I will also miss some of the non-legal aspects of my work at MCEA. MCEA works in three branches of government, and it’s a really unique thing as an attorney to engage in an issue not just as a litigator but also through relationship-making and thinking about creative solutions to problems and ways to achieve goals also outside of the judicial system. 

Q: You led the water program at MCEA, what do you wish more people understood about our water, and what issues do you see facing Minnesota’s water in the future? 

A:  I think a lot of people don’t understand the connection between climate change and water. Minnesota has been a water-rich state for a long time, and those dynamics are probably going to change. There will be more and more water demands on our state and Minnesotans are going to have to decide how they want to address them. 

Q: Any other parting words on MCEA?

A: This has been a great place to work. I am going to miss my colleagues. That is going to be one of the hardest things about this change. The people who work at MCEA are people who really want to make a difference in our world and that is a really admirable group of people to get to call your colleagues; walking away from that is really, really hard. Also, I am just so thankful for MCEA. This organization has always invested in me and trusted me and given me opportunities to be a lawyer and a leader.