Judge is no stranger to high-stakes political cases

  • Article by: PAT PHEIFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 31, 2009 - 8:38 PM

The chief of the Ramsey County District Court has not broadcast her political affiliation and has ruled for and against past governors.

Ramsey County district judge Kathleen Gearin.

In her 23 years on the bench, Ramsey County Chief District Judge Kathleen Gearin has never shied away from controversial cases that spill down to the courthouse from the State Capitol a few blocks away.

Gearin raised Gov. Tim Pawlenty's ire Wednesday when she ruled that the governor's unilateral spending cuts last summer were improper, a decision that prompted one budget expert to say that "the basic structure of [Pawlenty's] budget may fall apart."

The 65-year-old Gearin is no stranger to high-stakes political cases.

Last year she was appointed by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson to the initial recount panel in the Al Franken-Norm Coleman U.S. Senate fight, and then by Secretary of State Mark Ritchie to the five-member state Canvassing Board.

In 1991, she and District Judge Joanne Smith ruled unconstitutional more than a dozen line-item vetoes by Gov. Arne Carlson. Smith's ruling had the effect of restoring $26.1 million to a higher education bill. Carlson did not appeal Smith's rulings; Gearin's were upheld by the Supreme Court.

Gearin has never broadcast her political affiliation, at least not since being elected in 1986, and judicial elections are, by law, nonpartisan.

Gearin, a lifelong St. Paulite, was high school social studies teacher for a few years, then a Ramsey County prosecutor for 11 years before winning an open seat on the bench.

She has presided over thousands of criminal and civil cases since then, perhaps most notably the first-degree murder trial of Harry J. Evans, convicted of killing St. Paul police Sgt. Jerry Vick in May 2005. In the aftermath of that trial, Gearin ruled that there was no misconduct after a woman came forward accusing a juror of racial bias. The Supreme Court upheld Gearin's ruling and Evans' conviction.

In August 1999, she ruled that the state's conflict-of-interest laws shouldn't prevent Gov. Jesse Ventura from refereeing a pro wrestling event.

And in 1993, she ruled that long-distance phone records of members of the state House should be open to the public after the Star Tribune revealed that $50,000 in unauthorized calls were made on the House majority leader's 800 access number.

Gearin can be brash, attorneys say, but she hands down equal parts of justice and mercy, they said.

She was elected chief judge by her peers in 2008 and keeps a full caseload. New Year's Eve afternoon found her presiding over almost two dozen defendants' first appearances and omnibus hearings for felony offenses.

Pat Pheifer • 612-741-4992

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