Hennepin County judge's career taking an unusual turn

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 1, 2009 - 9:54 PM

At his new job for less than a year, Fred Karasov is headed to Iraq next month with his Guard unit.

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Paul Karasov

It took Hennepin County District Judge Fred Karasov several tries and about three years to win a gubernatorial appointment to the bench, and now he's leaving.

Sworn in last March, Lt. Col. Karasov will be deployed in February with his Guard unit to Iraq. He is expected to return after seven months. The deployment is unusual. District Court Administrator Mark Thompson said he's never seen it happen before to a judge.

"On one hand, I'm proud to serve and I'm proud to go," Karasov said. "On the other hand, the timing wasn't so good. Here I am, I've been on the job less than a year."

For Karasov personally, it means leaving his wife of two years and blended family of children and stepchildren, who are mostly grown.

Professionally, it has been complicated, too. He has been trying to learn his way around the bench as a first-year judge while also taking weeks of vacation to prepare for a significant role in Iraq.

He will be part of the deployment with a level of responsibility unseen by Minnesotans since World War II. Karasov will be with the Minnesota National Guard's 34th Red Bull Infantry division. The 34th will provide leadership, command, logistics and communication support for four active-duty brigades of more than 16,000 coalition forces. Karasov will be chief of military justice, the lead prosecutor for the division overseeing the brigades.

In Iraq, Karasov will be in an office, he said, working long, regimented days. His general schedule: breakfast, work, workout/lunch, work, dinner, more work and the occasional movie. He isn't worried much about his safety.

"I give more credit to the soldiers putting their lives on the line," he said. "I don't think it's a really dangerous assignment for me."

The Guard is a family tradition for the judge. His father was a member. Karasov served in the Air National Guard from 1972 to 1976. After earning his law degree, he joined the Army guard as part of the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps. His 19-year-old daughter, Danielle, just signed up.

The judge also has a long professional commitment to public service and criminal justice. His appointment to the bench was lauded at the courthouse.

One of those filling in for Karasov will be retired Judge Steve Swanson, who just returned to Minneapolis after spending the past 22 months in Kabul, Afghanistan, helping train the judiciary through a civilian program.

Swanson demurred at offering advice but encourages Karasov to keep up frequent contact with home -- made easier by Skype, which allows phone calls over the Internet and other computer programs. Swanson said he will return to Hennepin County invigorated and with "a greater appreciation of the independence of our courts, and of the judges who work there, and of the opportunity and duty we as judges have to ensure the vindication of the human rights enshrined in the U.S. and Minnesota Constitutions, regardless of the seriousness of the criminal charge."

One ethical responsibility

Karasov first earned a master's degree in criminal justice, then worked as a Hennepin County sheriff's deputy in the jail before going to law school. He joined the county attorney's office in 1983, where he worked for 25 years on criminal matters.

"You're serving the citizens of the community," he said of the prosecutor's job. "You're helping victims. You're also helping defendants. That's our one ethical responsibility: Seek justice. You always try to do the right thing, that's your job."

While Karasov loved prosecuting, he wanted a change, a new way to make a difference and saw a judgeship as the path. "I figured thousands of people will come into my courtroom ... and the way I conduct myself and the way I run my courtroom can greatly influence the way people see our system," he said.

Family Court was his desire

If he wasn't en route to Iraq, Karasov said he hoped for a rotation in Family Court so he could work on civil cases for the first time in his career.

Karasov was sworn in with three other judges, who also are learning the job. Thompson said those colleagues will lose out on Karasov's criminal law expertise while he's away. "He has great promise to this bench and to take him away for months, his staff is going to miss him and we're going to miss him," Thompson said.

Thompson said Karasov joined the bench full of energy and good ideas, but no ego.

"He never takes himself as a big deal, he's just a cog to get things done," Thompson said.

Karasov was deployed once before -- to Kosovo in 2003-04 with the Guard in a peacekeeping assignment.

"I'm 55 years old. I kind of thought Kosovo would be my last deployment. No one could have predicted Iraq would have lasted this long," Karasov said.

Asked for his thoughts on the U.S. mission in Iraq, Karasov laughs loudly and repeats the question so a clerk in another room can also hear.

"I'm a soldier. It's not for me to decide. If they tell us we're going, we're going. I don't question the politics. They need soldiers to do the mission, I'm happy to do the mission."

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747

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