Allen Oleisky: A good judge of character

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 24, 2008 - 11:14 PM

The Hennepin County district judge, the state's most senior jurist, is stepping down from the bench after 36 years.

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Judge Allen Oleisky talked with City View School second-grader Sean Ly about “No Roses for Harry,” a book that Sean was about to read to Oleisky. The judge will retire at the end of the month, but he said he will keep reading with Sean.

Photo: Joey McLeister, Star Tribune

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Hennepin County District Judge Allen Oleisky has been on the bench longer than anyone else in the state. Still sharp and healthy -- he's the captain and sometime pitcher on the court softball team -- he'd like to stay put. But the law requires he retire at 70, a number he hits on March 31. That day, for the first time since 1972, he won't don the black robe.

Oleisky leaves with the respect of both prosecutors and defense attorneys, but without the cynicism that can come from years of complicated civil cases, nasty criminals and abused children. "Most people have some decency in them and I try to bring that out and encourage that," he said.

He won't stop working, of course. He will be a mediator and share office space with what he called "the prestigious firm of Oleisky & Oleisky." His children, Bob, 41, and Jill, 37, are criminal defense attorneys.

Colleagues plan a party for him in the jury room at the government center beginning at noon on Friday.

A guitar, a gun and weddings

Oleisky has seen a lot since he was appointed to the municipal bench in 1972 and the district court in 1974 by Gov. Wendell Anderson. From 1979 to 1990, he presided in Juvenile Court.

There was the boy in the foster system who wanted to become an Elvis impersonator, so Oleisky and his colleagues chipped in to buy him a guitar.

They kept in touch, and eventually Oleisky officiated at his marriage. The young man is still playing "Blue Suede Shoes." "We got him a guitar. He turned it into a career," Oleisky said.

There was the teenager whose car was towed while she was seeing Oleisky for judicial permission to have an abortion. He and his colleagues paid to get the car out of impound.

There were the weddings at the Oleisky home for total strangers, recalls Marcia Oleisky, who has been married to the judge for 45 years. One couple promised a party of four and showed up with 20 friends. Another lingered long after the brief ceremony, the bride nursing an infant while her 10-year-old daughter rummaged through Marcia's closet. "After a couple bad experiences, I said: No more," she said.

There were the death threats, which brought both fear and comic relief.

Police gave Oleisky a gun. But he worried his children, who were young at the time, might find it. So he stashed it in the trunk of his car. His wife said, "That's going to be wonderful. They're going to come after you and you'll say, 'Let me run out to the car and get the gun,'" Oleisky said.

Oleisky said the hit had been taken out by pimps whose prostitutes he put in jail. But this was no big-buck contract.

"He was very disappointed to learn the contract was only for $500," Marcia Oleisky said.

Jill and Bob Oleisky got the benefit of their dad's years in juvenile court.

He'd come home from work and Marcia would say, "You won't believe what your kids have done." But Oleisky would not be impressed. "I'd say, 'Well, they haven't torched the house or been into drugs or any of that,'" the judge said.

Oleisky brought fresh donuts and made coffee every day for his juries, but some things he wouldn't do. District Judge Peter Albrecht recalled that a former in-law handed the judge a parking ticket and told him to "take care of it." Oleisky paid it himself. "He didn't want to turn down a favor for a friend and he's way too honest to fix a ticket," Albrecht said.

Like most judges, he has been overturned many times, but one decision really pains him. He was overseeing a baby born to parents who met in a mental institution. When the father got out of the hospital, he pursued unsupervised visitation. Social workers were split on the idea, but Oleisky granted the man a weekend visit. He killed the toddler. "If I could have one back," he said, his voice trailing.

He doesn't claim to have the answer to dysfunctional families and violent juveniles. "If I had it, I would bottle it," he said.

A lasting mpression

Through much of his career, Oleisky taught at Hamline University School of Law. Many of his former students are now judges and lawyers, including assistant Hennepin County Attorney Anne McKeig, who will take the bench as he leaves.

What she said she learned from him: "Just be honest and care about what you are doing. Don't think of it as a job. It's part of your life. You're part of the community. It's important."

Son Bob said seeing his father's example led him to a career in law. "He's always loved what he's done for 36 years."

Defense attorney Joel Friedberg said Oleisky was "wonderful with one hundred times the [guts] of an average judge. He made decisions based on what the right thing to do was no matter how he would be perceived."

Ron Meshbesher, another famed Twin Cities litigator, said Oleisky was one of his favorites. "He really has the disposition every judge should have. He's calm, he's caring. He's courteous and he's concerned about doing justice," Meshbesher said. "He shows respect for every litigant before him."

Arguing for the prosecution, Paul Scoggin recalled being in front of Oleisky daily as a young prosecutor in 1984. Now he's managing attorney for Hennepin County's violent crimes division. "He ran a fair, follow-the-law courtroom. At the same time, there was a whole lot of compassion."

Oleisky will be missed, Scoggin said. "He was the guy that recognized this isn't all about punishment. This is about: Are there people here who can be redeemed?"

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747

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