When the state of Minnesota sued big tobacco in the late 1990s, stoic Ramsey County District Judge Kenneth Fitzpatrick caught the case that would cap his legal career and shape the future of a multibillion dollar industry.
Fitzpatrick became the first judge in history to sanction a cigarette company in health-related litigation when he ordered Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. in 1997 to pay a $100,000 fine for what he called “flagrant” violations of evidentiary discovery rules before trial. His rulings in that trial lifted the lid on a trove of damaging scientific and marketing research kept secret for years by the tobacco industry.
“The judge was clearly in the spotlight with a case of unprecedented proportions,” recalled David Phelps, a former Star Tribune reporter who co-wrote a book on the case. “No state had ever gone that far.”
Fitzpatrick, a reserved man with a subtle, teasing sense of humor, died Oct. 3 at St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester. He was 80 years old.
“The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Ken is rock-solid integrity,” said friend and neighbor Scott Davies. “He had a really good sense of high ethics and judgment.”
The youngest of four children, Fitzpatrick was born and raised in St. Paul. The Fitzpatricks were “poor as church mice,” recalled sister Margaret Kruse. “We had a rough-and-tumble childhood, but it also created a great deal of discipline,” Kruse said.
Their mother, Helen, believed the key to escaping poverty was education — especially Catholic education.
Fitzpatrick initially wanted to be a priest, Kruse said. For a decade, he attended seminary schools, including Nazareth Hall and St. Paul Seminary. He was both studious and athletic, excelling at hockey. He eventually decided against the priesthood and enrolled in William Mitchell College of Law.
After graduating, he went to work at the Minnesota attorney general’s office, later moving to the St. Paul city attorney’s office. He was appointed to the bench as a municipal judge in June 1973 and as a district court judge in September 1986. He retired in July 1998.
While Fitzpatrick loved the law, family remained his top priority. He had met his wife of 56 years, Mary Ann, during law school.
“He worshiped her,” Davies said.
The couple were inseparable, with Fitzpatrick’s quiet demeanor complementing his wife’s social nature. They had four children — Greg, Mark, Dan and Ann. Dan Fitzpatrick said his dad always made time for the kids.
He was “very calm-mannered, kind and generous,” Dan Fitzpatrick said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better father.”
Fitzpatrick rooted for the North Stars and Minnesota Wild, passing his love of hockey onto his kids. Every winter, he flooded the backyard to make a skating rink, Dan Fitzpatrick said.
A lover of reading and the outdoors, Judge Fitzpatrick built three homes in the woods over the years, teaching himself how by reading about it. His wife helped, crafting a split-rock fireplace at the family’s cabin. He was delighted with her work, and she with his. She was a fixture in his courtroom during the tobacco trial.
The Minnesota tobacco trial was Fitzpatrick’s “swan song,” Dan Fitzpatrick said. The case was eventually settled for $7 billion.
Davies said it “took a great personal toll” on Fitzpatrick. After the trial, he left the profession and moved to Tennessee, later returning to Minnesota to be with family.
Survivors include his wife, children, daughter-in-law Nora Fitzpatrick, 13 grandchildren, and sisters Kruse and Catherine Fitzpatrick Michel. Services have been held.