Early Career

The son of a band director and a homemaker, David Lillehaug grew up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He graduated with highest honors from Augustana College and with honors from Harvard Law School. He received Augustana’s Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2006.

Lillehaug started his career as a law clerk to U.S. District Court Judge Harry MacLaughlin, who had previously served as a justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court. In 1983-84, Lillehaug traveled with former Vice President Walter Mondale on his presidential campaign, serving as issues aide and executive assistant.

United States Attorney

In 1993, Senator Paul Wellstone recommended Lillehaug to be the United States Attorney for the District of Minnesota, the federal government’s chief prosecutor and civil lawyer in the state. In making his recommendation, Wellstone said: “I’ve met maybe five people in my adult life that have as highly developed a sense of public service as he does. I really believe in him.”

After a full background investigation, Lillehaug was nominated by President Bill Clinton and confirmed unanimously by the United States Senate. From 1994 to 1998, he led an office of 40 lawyers and 60 support staff, reporting to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.

In many ways, Lillehaug transformed the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He dramatically increased the diversity of the attorney staff, hiring and promoting attorneys of color, women, GLBT people, and those who chose law as a second career. He established the Office’s first part-time and flexible work schedules.

Lillehaug became known as the “Neighborhood U.S. Attorney.” He led federal law enforcement agencies into unprecedented cooperation with state and local agencies in prosecuting violent crimes and promoting economic development in low-income neighborhoods. He played a central role in Minnesota HEALS (Hope, Education, and Law and Safety), working with Honeywell, Allina, General Mills, the Police Executive Research Forum, public agencies and block clubs to create jobs and increase public safety. He also secured special federal assistance for neighborhood crime prevention and economic development in Saint Paul, Duluth, and Moorhead. He helped Minnesota counties, cities, and towns obtain additional police officers through the federal COPS program.

Responding to gang violence in the metro area, Lillehaug supervised the prosecutions of the leaders of the Vice Lords and Shotgun Crips in Minneapolis, and the 6-0 Tre Crips in Saint Paul who firebombed and killed five children. He drafted, solicited, and filed the first community impact statements in federal court, arising out of the prosecutions of a Detroit gang operating crack houses in south Minneapolis.

Lillehaug paid equal attention to civil rights issues. He applied for and obtained a special federal grant to train police officers in the appropriate use of force. He participated actively on the task force headed by U.S. District Court Judge Michael Davis that reported on racial disparities in pre-trial release and bond conditions. With the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, Lillehaug envisioned, organized, and convened a Minnesota Summit on Hate Crimes.

As U.S. Attorney, Lillehaug participated actively on the Native American Issues Subcommittee advising the U.S. Attorney General. He designated prosecutors and hired an on-site victim-witness coordinator for Red Lake and Bois Forte cases. He supervised the successful corruption prosecutions of officials at White Earth and Leech Lake.

Finally, Lillehaug showed his deep commitment to hold corporations accountable for wrongdoing. He negotiated the largest criminal pollution fine in Minnesota history – $4 million – of which $1 million went to conservation organizations to reduce non-point pollution. And he negotiated the largest False Claims Act settlement in Minnesota history – $8 million – with a Fortune 100 corporation.

Private Practice

Lillehaug is the only Supreme Court Justice who came to the Court directly from private law practice. His cases focused on public law and complex litigation, including civil, criminal, and administrative. He was rated “AV Preeminent” in Martindale-Hubbell; was listed in Who’s Who in American Law, The Best Lawyers in America, and Minnesota Super Lawyers; and was named a Minnesota Lawyer Attorney of the Year.

His clients in private practice included Fortune 100 corporations; Minnesota and international construction and design companies; public entities such as the Minnesota House of Representatives, the University of Minnesota, the Mille Lacs and Leech Lake Bands of Ojibwe, the City of Saint Paul, and the Three Rivers Park District; and public officials including three U.S. Senators, the Governor, the State Auditor, and the Mayor of Minneapolis.

He was active in bar activities, including the State Bar Association’s Construction Law Section (founding chair), the Civil Litigation Section (governing council), and the Federal Bar Association (board member). He continues on the board of the State Bar’s Mock Trial Advisory Committee, which sponsors the annual state high school mock trial tournament. Justice Lillehaug presided over the final round this year and judged at the national tournament.

While in private practice, Lillehaug prepared numerous articles, continuing legal education presentations, and law school lectures focused on: constitutional law; white-collar prosecution and defense; federal and Minnesota False Claims Acts; regulatory compliance and ethics; trial advocacy; and complex civil litigation.

Community Activities

Lillehaug has served on governing or advisory boards for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, Augustana College, Lutheran World Relief, the Minneapolis Synod of the ELCA, Edina Community Lutheran Church, the Minneapolis-St. Paul Chapter of the American Constitution Society, and Growth & Justice.

Work on the Supreme Court

Justice Lillehaug is the Supreme Court liaison to the Rules of Criminal Procedure Committee, the Juvenile Delinquency Rules Committee, and the Alternative Dispute Resolution Committee. He is the Supreme Court liaison to the Fourth Judicial District (Hennepin County) and to the Ninth Judicial District (northwest Minnesota).

Examples of opinions Justice Lillehaug has authored during his first year on the Supreme Court are the following:

Personal Life


Justice Lillehaug has been married for 32 years to Winifred Smith. They live in Minneapolis. Their daughter, Kara, just graduated from college and will be attending law school. Justice Lillehaug enjoys hunting with his yellow Lab (Emma), Gopher football games, summer weekends at the family’s log cabin, and golfing with long-time friends.