Skip to Main Content
Minnesota State Law Library Logo

Minnesota State Law Library

Martin A. Nelson, Associate Justice 1953-1972

Martin A. Nelson

Portrait of Justice Martin Nelson


Prior to his appointment to the Supreme Court in 1953, Martin A. Nelson served as an aviator in World War I and was a two-time Republican nominee for Governor of Minnesota. 


Martin A. Nelson was born on February 21, 1889 in Hesper, Iowa. Nelson attended public schools in Hesper, Iowa and Mabel, Minnesota. He attended Mechanic Arts High School in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1912, Nelson registered as a pharmacist and spent several years working in Spring Valley Minnesota. He graduated from St. Paul College of Law with an LL.B. in 1916.

During World War I, Nelson served as an aviator and as an aviation instructor at American air training fields. Prior to enlisting, Nelson practiced law in St. Paul. After the war, Nelson moved his practice to Austin, Minnesota, where he practiced until 1944. 

After Nelson moved to Austin, he met his wife, Merle Henifin. Nelson and Merle had two children, Arthur and Enid. 

Nelson was active in politics in the 1920s and 1930s. He served as a delegate to the Republican National Conventions in 1928 and 1920. Nelson twice won the Republican nomination for Governor of Minnesota, but was defeated by Floyd B. Olson in the 1934 election and was defeated by Elmer A. Benson in the 1936 election. Nelson sought the Republican nomination for governor a third time in 1938, but lost to Harold Stassen, who went on to win the governorship. In 1942, Nelson ran as an independent candidate for the United States Senate. He received 14.4% of the vote and came in third place. 

In 1944, was appointed as a District Court Judge in Austin, Minnesota by Governor Edward J. Thye. He won re-election in November of that same year. Nelson was re-elected again in 1950. He ran unopposed in both elections. He was appointed to the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1953 by Governor C. Elmer Anderson to fill a vacancy created when Roger L. Dell was promoted to Chief Justice. Nelson served on the court for 19 years until he resigned January 3, 1972 at the age of 82. A bill was brought before the Legislature in 1971 to force his resignation. The bill did not pass at that time, but Nelson's tenure on the court is credited with being the catalyst for the current mandatory retirement law (see Minnesota Statutes Chapter 490). 

Nelson was a member of the American Legion. He also served as a trustee for St. Olaf Hospital for 22 years. He served as Board President for St. Olaf Hospital for ten years. 

Nelson died on May 22, 1979 at the age of 90. 

You may read more about the life and work of Justice Nelson in the Minnesota Supreme Court Historical Society's book: Testimony: Remembering Minnesota's Supreme Court Justices, which is a source of this brief biography.

Martin A. Nelson's signature from the Minnesota Supreme Court's Roll of Attorneys,1858-1970, p 158 (June 23, 1916), available online at: