From the public defender’s office to the social justice movement to arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court at age 33, Hennepin County District Judge Mark Wernick’s career hit a lot of highs before he retired this month.
Straight out of law school in 1975, he worked for two years as a Hennepin County public defender before heading out on his own. His legal influences were the late William Kunstler of New York and St. Paul civil rights lawyer Ken Tilsen. Both made careers of fighting for civil rights, radicals and unpopular clients.
Wernick followed that path. He represented the General Assembly to Stop the Powerline in its hard-fought but unsuccessful effort to end construction of a power line in central Minnesota. He tried to end storage of nuclear waste at Prairie Island and represented the protesters of a Paynesville bank’s foreclosure policies in 1984.
In 1983, he argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court for a client who had confessed a murder to his probation officer. The court ruled the confession was admissible, so Wernick’s client lost. But the court also established that a client can invoke his right against self-incrimination when speaking to his probation officer. Wernick called the experience “thrilling.”
From there he moved into white-collar criminal defense.
In the ’90s, Wernick deflected legislative efforts to repeal the state Constitution’s right to bail for criminal defendants.
He was Gov. Jesse Ventura’s final appointment to the Hennepin County bench in 2002.
In 2009, he made the politically courageous decision to set aside a jury’s murder verdict. He determined that prosecutors and police failed to turn over evidence favorable to the defendant. The defendant, accused of killing a Kingfield bicyclist, got a new trial — and an acquittal.
Wernick stays active in criminal law. He’s also going to spend more time at his country home, ride his motorcycle and hang out with his wife and dog.
A quiet, unassuming man, Wernick said of his career, “I’m proud of it all.”