Retiring Ramsey County district judge loved to 'listen to the heartbeat of the people'

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 13, 2013 - 9:45 PM

Colleagues laud Ramsey County District Judge Kathleen Gearin for her care and diligence.

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Ramsey County District Judge Kathleen Gearin received a lifetime achievement award from Robert Enger, president of the Minnesota State Bar Association, at the Earle Brown Heritage Center in Brooklyn Park on June 27.

Photo: Richard Sennott • rsennott@startribune.com,

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Ramsey County District Judge Kathleen Gearin told a defendant before her for sentencing in a road rage incident that she was giving him a chance.

“You made a mistake,” Gearin said after sentencing him to six months in the county workhouse. “It’s a mistake that’s going to stay with you a while. I don’t think it’s reflective of who you are, that’s why I’m giving you a chance.”

It was among the last criminal proceedings Gearin will oversee as she prepares to retire at the end of July, ending a career that included some of the most controversial cases in recent memory to everyday crimes, all of which, colleagues said, she attended to with the same care and diligence. Sensibility was her hallmark.

Gearin, a St. Paul native, taught high school social studies before working as a Ramsey County prosecutor for 11 years. She was first elected judge in 1986 and became one of the few women on the county’s bench at the time, serving as a mentor to those who followed, including current Ramsey County Chief Judge Teresa Warner.

Gearin served as chief judge from 2008 to 2012, which landed her in some of the most difficult cases of her career. The experience, she later said, was part of the reason she decided to retire this year at age 68, two years shy of the mandatory retirement age for Minnesota judges.

A salute from state’s lawyers

The Minnesota State Bar Association awarded her its lifetime achievement award at a ceremony in late June.

“She brings great common sense to her decisionmaking,” said State Bar Association secretary Michael Unger, chair of the awards committee. “She’s very much a straight shooter in how she analyzes issues and expresses her decisions.”

“I’ve dealt with an unusual number of high-publicity cases as a judge,” Gearin said in her acceptance speech. “But that’s not what I’m going to remember the most.

“At our best as judges, at our best, we can make the system, we can make the court appearance, we can make that case, the results, a little more just, a little more understandable and a little less frightening to the people we serve. That’s been my goal, and I’ve loved it.”

In her chambers recently Gearin said she started considering retirement toward the end of her chief judgeship, but knew she wanted to spend a year doing “regular judge things.”

“That chief judgeship took a lot out of me, to be honest,” Gearin said. “It took a lot physically and a lot emotionally, too.”

In the post she was confronted with numerous issues involving the 2008 Republican National Convention, served on the canvassing board of the Al Franken-Norm Coleman U.S. Senate fight and oversaw the 2011 government shutdown.

The back-to-back high-profile cases were stressful, Gearin said. The RNC turned St. Paul into “the face of the whole United States justice system” for a full week, Gearin said, as she handled lawsuits brought by protesters.

Gearin said she took “a lot of lumps” and received a lot of “trash comments” for her 2009 decision challenging then- Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s unallotment.

In 2009, she wrote that Pawlenty “trod upon the constitutional power of the Legislature” when he made cuts to the budget in a procedure known as unallotment after lawmakers adjourned.

“She wrote a thoughtful opinion for what was, for any judge, a risky situation,” Unger said.

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