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Superior native serves as Virginia solicitor general

Toby Heytens, second from left, poses for a photo with his family, brother Troy, left, sister Heidi Sigfrids, center, and parents Bill and Sally Heytens during Sigfrids wedding in October at the Fitger's Complex in Duluth. Toby Heytens was recently appointed solicitor general for the Commonwealth of Virgina. Jed Carlson/jcarlson@superiortelegram.com

The State of Virginia's next solicitor general grew up in Superior's East End, attending school at Nelson-Dewey Elementary and East Junior High. When his parents moved to Billings Park, he attended Central Junior High for two years.

Toby Heytens, now a professor at the University of Virginia Law School, was appointed last week by Virginia's Attorney General Mark Herring to serve as the attorney responsible for leading appellate practice and spearheading major litigation for the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The appointment takes effect Feb. 21, after Heytens argues a previously scheduled case in the U.S. Supreme Court, according to a news release issued by Herring's office.

For most of the last two decades, Heytens has lived in the Washington, D.C. and Charlottesville, Virginia, area, where last year, three incidents — a torch-lit rally in May, a Ku Klux Klan rally in July and the broadly-reported Unite the Right rally that ended the life of 32-year-old Heather Heyer — all took place within a few blocks from his home.

"The street where that young woman was killed is a street that we walk down all the time," Heytens said. "That is right by my house. That was a lot."

During his legal career, Heytens has served in the U.S. Department of Justice, worked as a clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, argued six cases before the nation's high court, worked in private practice and taught a semester at Cornell University before teaching at the University of Virginia Law School.

Growing up in Superior, Heytens said he thought about going to law school off and on since he was in junior high school, likely inspired by television shows about lawyers, since there were no attorneys in his family when he was growing up.

"I thought about doing other things," Heytens said. "I thought pretty seriously about becoming an elementary school teacher. It was that or get a Ph.D. in history. It was probably get a Ph.D. in history, be an elementary school teacher or be a lawyer."

But getting involved in mock trial when he attended Superior Senior High School — Class of 1993 — likely swayed his career path, he said.

"I liked it a lot," Heytens said. "It was a lot of fun. We had a fair amount of success. We never made it to nationals when I was there. We lost the state finals 4-3 in the last round I ever competed in."

It was during that time he met Ken Knudson, an attorney who represented the Superior school district and mentored students as an attorney coach for the mock trial teams.

Knudson, and teachers Connie (Dallman) Mickolajak and William Rehnstrand, all had a "tremendous" influence on him, Heytens said.

"He was very talented," said Knudson, who now lives in Andover, Minnesota. "I'm not surprised that Toby's doing well. He was very bright. He worked really hard, and he did a really good job."

Knudson said he remembered serving as a judge for mock trial at the University of Wisconsin-Superior and one of the teams competing was one Heytens coached while attending Macalester College in St. Paul.

"I was very proud," Knudson said.

After graduating from Macalester in 1997, Heytens went to the University of Virginia to study law. He graduated from law school in 2000 and went to work as a clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

"It was one of the great honors of my life," Heytens said, adding that she wasn't the "notorious RBG" she is now when he clerked for her from 2000 to 2003. He said it's only been the last few years where working for Ginsburg has given him "street cred."

"It was pretty incredible; it was a huge honor," Heytens said. "It's a little bit strange ... She's become a lot more famous since I worked for her."

Ginsburg was one of his heroes, he said.

"If you asked me, 'If you could clerk for anyone, who would you clerk for?' it probably would have been her," Heytens said, noting her work on equality.

As Heytens takes on his new role as Virginia's solicitor general, he is "100 percent certain" he's going to miss teaching.

"This is actually the second time I've taken a leave of absence from my teaching job," Heytens said. "The first time was to work for the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., and I missed it then."

Still, public service is important to him.

Knudson said he didn't know Heytens had been named solicitor general, but he wasn't surprised by the appointment of the former student he coached.

"It's one of those things where you're amazed that the little thing that you started, like a pebble, the ripples just keep going," Knudson said. "Congratulations to him."

And Heytens has some advice for today's students as they work to their goals. While luck plays a role, he said, "put yourself in a position to get great opportunities, and when you get great opportunities, find a way to say 'yes' because you can't predict when they're going to come around."

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