Michael Fetsch, a judge in Ramsey County District Court for 13 years, presided over cases big and small, but most notable were two major decisions affecting the multibillion-dollar settlement between the state of Minnesota and Big Tobacco companies.
As a lawyer, Fetsch was an advocate for the poor and disadvantaged. He provided free legal services as a public defender and as the first executive director of the Neighborhood Justice Center.
Fetsch, 73, died Sept. 12 at his St. Paul home from complications related to a blood cancer.
Fetsch attended St. Luke’s grade school in St. Paul and Nazareth Hall Preparatory Seminary and had studied to be a priest at the St. Paul Seminary.
But he left seminary life, eventually enrolling in and graduating from the William Mitchell College of Law in 1966. From 1964 to 1968 he worked for West Publishing Co.
Fetsch’s wife of 50 years, Marilyn, said her husband loved the practice of law and trial work but didn’t see himself working in the corporate world.
“Years ago he made the decision to work in the poverty law arena,” Marilyn Fetsch said. “It was a good fit.”
Michael Fetsch could have gone on to a profitable career at West or in private practice, but in 1968 he went to work for Legal Assistance of Ramsey County as a staff attorney. Retired Ramsey County District Judge Michael DeCourcy met his longtime friend and colleague in that period.
DeCourcy called Fetsch a rock star. “I’ve always said he is the standard against which we all should be measured,” DeCourcy said. “And we all come up fairly short on that.”
In 1972, DeCourcy was one of six city prosecutors, while Fetsch was the lone public defender who defended every misdemeanor case in St. Paul. “There was six of us and one of him, and it wasn’t a fair fight,” DeCourcy said. “We could have used a couple more guys on our team.”
In 1973, Fetsch became the first executive director of the Neighborhood Justice Center in St. Paul, which provides criminal defense services to assist low-income people.
He left the Justice Center in 1975 and went into private practice, while still doing part-time public defender work in state and federal court.
In 1994, he was appointed as a referee in Ramsey County District Court, and in 1996 was appointed a Ramsey County district judge by then-Gov. Arne Carlson. He retired in 2009 when he reached the mandatory retirement age.
His judicial career included two cases related to the 1998 settlement between the state and Big Tobacco companies.
In 2002, he ruled that the Minnesota Partnership for Action Against Tobacco, a nonprofit organization that was formed out of the tobacco settlement, was improperly focusing its anti-smoking efforts on community smoking bans. Fetsch ordered the group to concentrate on helping smokers quit.
In December 2005, he ruled that the state’s 75-cents-per-pack “health impact fee” on cigarettes was unconstitutional. Fetsch stayed his order pending appeal and in May 2006 the state Supreme Court reversed his ruling.
Fetsch is survived by his wife and three children: Anne of Fairfax, Va.; John of Chicago; and Tim of Alexandria, Va., and four grandchildren.