Minnesota State Law Library
Peter S. Popovich was born in 1920 in Crosby, Minnesota. His parents, Peter and Rose (Mihelich) were both immigrants from Croatia. His father worked in the mines and later as a salesman and his mother, who died when he was 13, worked as a teacher in Michigan before her marriage. Popovich grew up in Chisolm and received his A.A. from Hibbing Junior College and his B.A. from the University of Minnesota. He attempted to join the army to fight in World War II, but was denied due to a weak eye. He worked many jobs during his school years, including newspaper reporter in Virginia, MN, insurance investigator, and Arthur Murray dance instructor.
During law school, he worked as a law clerk for federal judge, John B. Sandborn, since most of the clerks had left for the war. He married his first wife Dorothy Lee in 1944, while in law school. In 1947, he graduated from St. Paul College of Law and that same year contracted polio. He also founded the law firm Peterson & Popovich in St. Paul with a law school classmate. The firm specialized in education law. A few years later, Popovich decided to run for office. He didn't win in 1950, but in 1952, Popovich was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives where he served for 10 years. During his time as a representative, he was involved in committees related to the judiciary and education.
Popovich and his wife Dorothy divorced in 1962 after 18 years of marriage and four children. He remarried in 1985 to Gail Javorina who was also from the Iron Range and worked in Rudy Perpich's office. They met on a blind date in 1983.
On November 2, 1983, he was appointed Chief Judge of the brand new Minnesota Court of Appeals by friend and fellow Iron Ranger, Governor Rudy Perpich. He was instrumental in establishing the court and spent months learning how intermediate courts operated in other states. He helped bring a computerized case management system about and helped build the court into an efficient body. his motto was "Justice Delayed is Justice Denied" and worked to produce timely opinions for court cases.
In 1987, Popovich was appointed to the Supreme Court. After two years, on February 1, 1989 he was appointed Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, the first and only person to hold both positions. During his tenure, he took a leadership role in the construction of the new judicial building which would have space for both appellate courts as well as other administrative offices and the library. He also established the Court Information Office to help educate the public about the work of the court and the legal system.
He retired on November 30,1989, at the mandatory age of 70. After retiring, he went to work for Briggs and Morgan until his death in 1996. He also served on the Pardon Board. He was involved in many civic activities throughout his life. Popovich was survived by his wife, Gail, his daughters Vicki, Dorothy, and Suzanne, son Stephen as well as stepchildren Michelle, Paul, and Stephen Javorina.
You may read more about the life and work of Chief Justice Popovich in the resources provided in this guide and in the book, Testimony: Remembering Minnesota's Supreme Court Justices, which is a source of this brief biography.