Former U.S. District Judge Jim Rosenbaum claimed his hands were clammy as we got situated.
I don’t know why I’d make him nervous. I’ve known the St. Paul native, who always introduces himself as Jim not James, since he was Minnesota’s U.S. attorney. I was around during those anxious days before he was elevated to the federal bench and didn’t want to jinx the nomination by talking about it: “A lot of people have gotten a lot closer and not made it,” he said at the time.
Rosenbaum was a federal judge for 25 years before stepping down in 2010 to “do private judging. I arbitrate, I mediate, and then I also do something I never expected. We call it ‘neutral evaluation.’ Lawyers consult with me about how to handle a difficult matter. How do you frame a difficult question? How would you practice this argument? I never really thought about that, and I found that very interesting and very challenging. These cases tend to be complicated and well lawyered. My wife and I call that ‘lawyer fun.’ No normal person would think these activities were fun.”
His wife was also a judge. Former Hennepin County District Judge Marilyn Rosenbaum was on the bench for 22 years. Loving the law has definitely taken a back seat to the affections he has for her, their daughters and nine grandchildren, all of whom live in the metro area.
“The other day [a daughter needing someone to watch her kids called and said], ‘It’s a snow day, and I have to go to work.’ ‘Yeah, we’ll take ’em.’ We see them all the time. We’re very, very lucky.”
In Part 1 of this interview, we get many of the legal questions out of the way. In Part 2, we’ll have more fun with Judge Marilyn matters. There will also be some necessary sadness, as we recall the untimely 2016 death of his brother, attorney Ron Rosenbaum, a Twin Cities radio and TV personality.
“Lots of people didn’t know we were brothers,” the judge said. “We had the same politics. Were are both libertarian and kind of open and willing to take a shot at anything. He was a good guy.”
Q: Can you look back at cases and see where you’d like to have a ruling back?
A: Oh, a lot. One of the interesting things when a judge writes opinions [is] you may spend hours trying to figure out what you’re supposed to do. Sometimes it’s a choice of options that are not particularly attractive. Then, of course, the court of appeals comes along and reverses it and writes it the same way but on the other side.
There were many cases where I didn’t agree when it came to sentencing. Sometimes you were constrained because [of] mandatory minimums. You did what you had to do. There were many of those. You did the best you could.
Q: Have you had cases where the guilty got away with something and you knew they had done the crime? Or vice versa?
A: I only had two. In one case, I called the acquittal; I overruled the jury. A federal judge has an unusual power, you get to almost be a 13th juror. A jury came back with a guilty verdict and I set it aside. We retried the case, and the person was acquitted.
The second case, there was an acquittal. The jury made its decision. When you say did I know? You know 12 people working very hard, listened to the evidence ... and I’m content with that.
Q: Do judges really need to wear robes?
A: There are [administrative law] judges who don’t. I guess I’m personally a bit conservative. Robes have a function. I’m not Jim Rosenbaum when I have a robe on; I am a judge, and that person has the power to put you in jail, free you, to let you win money, to let you lose money. And that artifice of a robe, in a certain way, says you are something other than someone on the street.
You’ve known me a long time, and I hope you don’t think I act much different one way or another. But when I am running a courtroom, you [a judge] are no longer just a person, you are exercising the power of the government. There is this element of ceremony — I mean ceremony in a sense that you are talking about a different order of activity. In that regard, I think robes are useful.
Q: Do you think you can do as many pushups as RBG?
A: [Pause.] Maybe. [Laughter.] It’s appalling, but I think she’s in better shape.