MN’s Top Legal Officer & His Team: A Case Study in Honoring Youth Leadership and Justice

Published on December 7, 2020 | Written by

By Marcus Pope. Originally published on LinkedIn

The recent victory granting Minnesota high school students access to federally funded unemployment insurance benefits was a remarkable youth-led accomplishment. Five Minnesota youth – Cole, Hailey, Hayat, Lincoln, and Walter – along with the MN Young Champions spearheaded the fight for the rights of workers enrolled in high school. The long, eight-month journey of administrative advocacy and state and federal lobbying led to a legal filing against the State of Minnesota's Department of Employment and Economic Development. This journey culminated with a victory for our youth, as the MN Court of Appeals ruled in their favor. The details within the journey clearly demonstrate the strength and capacity of young people.

This successful youth-led effort is an important case study illuminating the role adults, organizations, and leaders can and should play in supporting youth leadership. Several concerned adults stepped up to help champion their cause. Non-profit organizations, youth advocates, and legal professionals stood with young people, providing ongoing support throughout the process. Youth advocates climbed into the trenches with young people, juggling their schedules and navigating the complexities of the pandemic in order to participate in Zoom calls, letter campaigns, and anything else they were called on to support. National groups such as the WW Foundation, Century Foundation and CIRCLE recognized the momentum in Minnesota and provided financial resources and technical support.

Experienced lobbyists donated time to help. Local media remained dedicated to keeping this issue in the news. Greg Merz, attorney at Lathrop GPM, committed pro bono support to ensure young people received the benefits to which they were entitled. And many who should have been opposed to the cause given their professional roles were quietly rooting for our young people to secure the relief they deserved. Such noble and unifying efforts under extremely challenging conditions deserve more praise and attention.

The more important case study, however, may be the courageous leadership of one of Minnesota's highest-ranking state officials: Attorney General Keith Ellison. As the chief legal officer providing representation for state agencies, our AG took a bold stand, which his team masterfully executed by filing an amicus brief in support of youth suing the state for the denial of benefits.

Within the context of the circumstances, I can think of several other more politically feasible options for AG Ellison:

  • He could have used commonly employed legal maneuvers to delay the process, crushing the hope and spirit of Minnesota youth;
  • He could have attempted to appease young people by holding meetings with them and praising their civic engagement, all the while stalling and gaining press, but taking no real action to stand up for their cause;
  • He could have used this issue as an opportunity to promote partisanship by blaming Republicans, and in doing so, provide fodder for his own party in the heart of election season.

Any combination of the above actions would be considered the norm in the current polarized environment. Yet, AG Ellison chose another path, squarely situated on the right side of history and justice – a path consistent with the neutrality and independence our highest law enforcement officials should hold in our great democracy. The result is the availability of an estimated $14-28 million in federal resources benefiting high school students from across the political spectrum and in every corner of the state. Youth from Brainerd to the Twin Cities, from Duluth to Blue Earth, and from Bemidji to Rochester can and will greatly benefit. This particular decision also brings hope to a young and diverse cohort of workers we so desperately need to buy into our leadership's vision for Minnesota.

AG Ellison did not use the moment as an opportunity for partisanship; he sought to independently uphold the letter of the law, and he went against the grain of what is typical in this historic moment. Our AG has sent a clear message: young workers matter, and he will fight for them, even if they are not able to vote. He and his team exemplify what it means to be true public servants, and all Minnesotans owe his office a moment of gratitude.

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