Deborah Hedlund was still a kid herself when she stood before a classroom of black students in Kansas City in 1969, the schoolhouse an oasis among blocks of buildings burned to the ground in riots after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
After growing up in Robbinsdale, where diversity was defined as being half-Swedish and half-Norwegian, the teaching job was the first time Hedlund knew what it was to feel like the minority. It was also the first time she realized the meaning of hopelessness.
“They all shared this skin color, and by and large, they all believed they would fail because of it,” she said. “I had never experienced that.”
It shaped Hedlund’s sense of justice, one she maintained for more than three decades as a judge in Hennepin County District Court, which ended with her retirement last week.
But Hedlund, 65, who has handled every case from probate to criminal and watched technology evolve from IBM Selectric typewriters to electronic filing, isn’t ready for easy living. In less than two weeks, she’ll ship off to China for a four-month stint teaching English and law, and rebuilding churches in Xinyang, in western Henan province. She first visited the country last year with five siblings, a daughter and granddaughter, and retraced the steps of relatives who preceded her as Christian missionaries generations before. She saw the schools they built, now filled with thousands of children. The hospitals they started are still in use. The man in charge of historic restoration knocked the rusty padlocks off long-empty churches and asked Hedlund to come back and restore them, along with the historic graveyards where the missionaries are buried.
When she returned, Hedlund decided not to file for re-election to the bench.
“I came home determined to go back there while the door was open,” she said. “To have this invitation was a unique thing, and 33 years [as a judge] is maybe enough. This is all I’ve ever wanted to do and it has been tremendous fun.”
Hedlund was just 32 when she was appointed to the bench by Gov. Al Quie, after stints as a public defender and Minnetonka city attorney. She was key in reaching a settlement between victims of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse and the state and construction companies involved in that 2007 disaster. Her ruling that the companies involved in the collapse must fund the state’s payout to victims was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. Hedlund also launched an unsuccessful bid for the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2008, but lost to the incumbent, Chief Justice Lorie Gildea.
The fact that the highest court in the nation sided with Hedlund’s ruling is just another accomplishment in a storied career by a woman who always maintained her sense of humor, said Janet Poston, Hedlund’s onetime clerk. Now a 16-year-veteran Hennepin County judge herself, she said that in 32 years, only 11 of Hedlund’s rulings were overturned.
“She says what everybody else is thinking,” Poston said. “She’s very plain-spoken, and in a group of colleagues that insightfulness is respected.”
At her farewell celebration Friday, Hedlund graciously accepted written recognition of her years of service, signed by Chief Justice Gildea and Gov. Mark Dayton. Decades before, during a tenure in family court, Hedlund had signed off on Dayton’s marriage dissolution. Then she stepped to the microphone and delivered a one-liner only a veteran judge could.
“Do you know how unusual it is,” she said, “to have a certificate from a governor you divorced and a plaque from a woman you ran against?”