A judge says farewell…

Before I begin my remarks, I want to thank my two Irish friends, Judges Eric Hylden and Dale Harris for putting this splendid living wake together with my wife, Rene’. Thanks as well to Barb Harris and Hannah Hylden for being willing to act as money changers in the temple. Thanks also to my dear friend and folk musician supreme, Mark Rubin and his wife Nancy, someone I’ve known since grade school, for spending time with me in their cozy home, encouraging a neophyte John Prine wanna-be to stand up here before you folks and sing. If it went badly, you can blame them! And finally, thanks to the speakers who agreed to given their perspectives on my career in the law.

Tom Olsen of the DNT got it mostly right. Disgruntled with the private practice of law, tired of clawing and digging and fighting for clients, having come close to being appointed to the bench by Governor Arne Carlson in 1992, I took the advice of his advisor on judicial appointments, Paul Anderson (later, Justice Paul Anderson), who told me via the phone that “we liked you, Mark, but you need a little more seasoning.”  I went back to the practice of law, changing law firms and enlarging my scope of work from primarily plaintiff’s personal injury and municipal law to include insurance defense, admiralty, employment, and construction law. And then, I waited. For an opportunity. A chance. To become a judge.

When Galen Wilson let it be known that he was going to serve out his term, meaning his judicial seat would be filled through popular election and not by gubernatorial appointment, I thought, “I can do this.” My wife Rene’, a smart, poised, mental health therapist agreed. She’s my rock. She’s my North Star. She’s the one I owe any modicum of success I’ve had as a father and a husband. When she gave me the green light to run for Judge Wilson’s seat, that’s all the encouragement I needed.

1,200 lawn signs, 12 parades, countless dinners and fundraisers and appearances and interviews and speeches later, the people of St. Louis, Lake, Cook, and Carlton Counties elected me to my first six year term. That was November of 1998. I shared the ballot with my 88 year-old uncle, Rep. Willard Munger, and a former wrassler. They both won too. Yes, my uncle’s name recognition helped my cause. But it was the dogged persistence of my father, Harry, and a cadre of close friends and acquaintances, including my four sons (even Jack, barely a year old at the time, worked parades from his stroller), who did yeoman’s work in putting up those lawn signs and getting out the word. Thank you, guys and gals, for all the sweat and hard work you invested in a forty-three year-old lawyer who thought he could be a decent judge.

Three folks deserve special recognition for helping me during that first election. The late Bob Scott, long an icon of behind-the-scenes DFL politics, was my Iron Range campaign chairperson. He made sure that I attended every noteworthy event on the Range to solidify my support in the northern half of St. Louis County. His son John admirably performed that same role here in Duluth and, as my overall campaign manager, worked his tail off to see his fishing buddy and personal lawyer attain victory. And finally, my longtime friend, Bruce Larson, the CFO of Best Oil Company, kept the books and made sure that I didn’t violate any of the quirky finance rules attendant to running a judicial campaign.

As the DNT article said, I was a bit headstrong as a young judge, pretty sure of myself and my ability. I quickly learned, while serving half-time in Carlton and half-time in Duluth my first two years on the bench, I may have known the law but I knew nothing of justice. I thought, as Tom Olsen accurately reported, that becoming a trial judge was just another job opportunity. Within a month of hearing cases, I knew that assumption wasn’t true. Being a trial judge is finding yourself in the midst of people’s stories and lives. It entails far more nuance and fortitude and discretion than any other legal position I can think of. It took a while for this headstrong former litigator to get it. But I did, at least, I hope I did.

To all of the law enforcement officers and probation officers and social workers and Guardians who appeared in front of me, I hope, despite our occasional disagreements, you came away knowing that I took your testimony and opinions to heart. I hope I always treated you as professionals, doing hard jobs for little pay and scant appreciation. Thank you for your service.

To the myriad clerks who work all aspects of the courts: you are the foundation of what we as judges do. You are the public’s first interaction with the system of justice and are required to deal with folks who are angry, frustrated, scared and quite frankly, at some of the lowest points in their lives when they come to court. And to the supervisors and administrators and support staff who work behind the scenes to make the Sixth the best and most innovative district in the state, I thank you as well. Your patience in seeing justice done is much appreciated.

Our security staff and transport staff, from my first Bailiff, Cathy Brown, whom I called Betty for my first two weeks as a judge until she got up the gumption to correct me, to George and Jeff and Becky and all the others working in the sheriff’s office who provide protection and order during court: You folks are on the front lines, dealing with upset citizens whose lives are in turmoil, handling tumultuous court sessions with a fair but firm hand.

You know, judges have two important employees they hire and manage. Over the years, I’ve been blessed with 11 bright young men and women who worked for me as law clerks. These are young attorneys who’ve graduated from law school and are trying to find their professional niche’. They provide legal research for the judge, prepare jury instructions and orders, and attend every contested hearing or trial, learning aspects of the law and lawyering you can’t learn in law school. My thanks to: Rebecca Eisenmenger, Megan Preblich, Heidi Murtonen, Stacy Johnston, Jen Claseman, Jon Holets, Ben Hanson, Rachel Bell, Kory Horn, Ellen Anderson, and Peter LaCourse for all your hard work and dedication in helping me make the right calls.

The other employee judges hire and confide in is their court reporter. Over twenty years of judging, I worked daily with two fine, young women who were my sounding boards and my other mental health therapists day in and day out. Their job is far more than keeping an accurate record of every court proceeding: they are, along with the law clerk, some of the only folks judges can confide in when weighing difficult decisions. But whereas law clerks come and go on a regular cycle—the position being an apprenticeship—court reporters are there for the long haul. Renata Skube was my first CR. She served our district for over twenty-five years, teaching this new judge, during our fourteen years together, what real justice should look like. Never shy about telling it like it is, this half-Finn, half-Slovenian firebrand made me a far better judge than I would have been on my own.

I finished my time on the bench presiding over two lengthy murder trials, one of which took me to Brainerd for the last month of my career. Deb Dreawves, my second court reporter, was by my side that entire month away from home. Much different in personality from Skube, but every bit as willing to share her thoughts when this judge was headed down the wrong path, I’ll miss our discussions of cases, families, life, and the Orange Headed One, Deb, that we shared these past 6 years. You are a blessing and the right person to work with me into retirement. And to all the other CRs who worked with me when my regular CR was off sick or on vacation, you too deserve appreciation for jobs well done, especially when reporting a motor mouth like me!

Finally, I want to acknowledge that, over my two decades of judging, I’ve had the good fortune of being able to count on a cadre of smart, dedicated, wise, and sometimes playfully weird brother and sister judges throughout the 6th district. I’ve been able to call upon each of the judges I’ve served with, from my first chief judge, John Oswald, to my last chief, Sally Tarnowski, for support and guidance, both personal and professional, as the need arose. Judging is, as my friend Carol Person once warned me before I took the oath, a lonely job. Having colleagues willing to hash out issues in a confidential setting, whether they are case related or not, makes the job bearable. Without brother and sister judges willing to step in and take calendars during the last illness of my stepfather, or after the sudden death of my father, such tragic occurrences would have been magnified and intensified by the stressors of judging. You all pitched in and helped and for that, I am forever grateful.

You know, I once wrote in a DNT essay that there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman. Every person of prominence or success, in whatever field, stands on the shoulders of his or her family and friends, teachers, coaches, and other mentors. I’ve had so many folks, including my mother, Barbara, my father, Harry,  my brother Dave, my sister Ann, my wife Rene’, and my four sons: Matt, Dylan, Chris, and Jack gift me with their love and nurturing and guidance, I am who I am because of them all.

So, to those who helped tutor and instruct and mentor and mold me during this forty-year journey, from serving divorce papers my first year of law school to drunks in the bars of South St. Paul, to taking the verdict in the case of State v. Davenport, I thank you all from the bottom of my heart. As Warren Zevon, one of our greatest songwriters—about the only thing Jesse and I ever agreed on— said: “Make us be brave, and make us play nice. And let us be together tonight.”

God loves you. And so do I.

Grandpa with Adrien, Ari and Avery his last week of work.

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