Ramsey County District Judge Kathleen Gearin told a defendant before her for sentencing in a road rage incident that she was giving him a chance.
“You made a mistake,” Gearin said after sentencing him to six months in the county workhouse. “It’s a mistake that’s going to stay with you a while. I don’t think it’s reflective of who you are, that’s why I’m giving you a chance.”
It was among the last criminal proceedings Gearin will oversee as she prepares to retire at the end of July, ending a career that included some of the most controversial cases in recent memory to everyday crimes, all of which, colleagues said, she attended to with the same care and diligence. Sensibility was her hallmark.
Gearin, a St. Paul native, taught high school social studies before working as a Ramsey County prosecutor for 11 years. She was first elected judge in 1986 and became one of the few women on the county’s bench at the time, serving as a mentor to those who followed, including current Ramsey County Chief Judge Teresa Warner.
Gearin served as chief judge from 2008 to 2012, which landed her in some of the most difficult cases of her career. The experience, she later said, was part of the reason she decided to retire this year at age 68, two years shy of the mandatory retirement age for Minnesota judges.
A salute from state’s lawyers
The Minnesota State Bar Association awarded her its lifetime achievement award at a ceremony in late June.
“She brings great common sense to her decisionmaking,” said State Bar Association secretary Michael Unger, chair of the awards committee. “She’s very much a straight shooter in how she analyzes issues and expresses her decisions.”
“I’ve dealt with an unusual number of high-publicity cases as a judge,” Gearin said in her acceptance speech. “But that’s not what I’m going to remember the most.
“At our best as judges, at our best, we can make the system, we can make the court appearance, we can make that case, the results, a little more just, a little more understandable and a little less frightening to the people we serve. That’s been my goal, and I’ve loved it.”
In her chambers recently Gearin said she started considering retirement toward the end of her chief judgeship, but knew she wanted to spend a year doing “regular judge things.”
“That chief judgeship took a lot out of me, to be honest,” Gearin said. “It took a lot physically and a lot emotionally, too.”
In the post she was confronted with numerous issues involving the 2008 Republican National Convention, served on the canvassing board of the Al Franken-Norm Coleman U.S. Senate fight and oversaw the 2011 government shutdown.
The back-to-back high-profile cases were stressful, Gearin said. The RNC turned St. Paul into “the face of the whole United States justice system” for a full week, Gearin said, as she handled lawsuits brought by protesters.
Gearin said she took “a lot of lumps” and received a lot of “trash comments” for her 2009 decision challenging then- Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s unallotment.
In 2009, she wrote that Pawlenty “trod upon the constitutional power of the Legislature” when he made cuts to the budget in a procedure known as unallotment after lawmakers adjourned.
“She wrote a thoughtful opinion for what was, for any judge, a risky situation,” Unger said.
But it was the 2011 government shutdown that got her thinking that she’d accomplished her career goals and was ready to move on.
“I was pretty exhausted after that,” she said of the shutdown.
At the time, Gearin urged the legislative and executive branches to resolve the budget impasse, which she described as “a game of chicken” with people’s lives.
St. Paul City Council Member Chris Tolbert clerked for Gearin during many of those difficult cases, including the unallotment decision.
“In making that decision it … was a challenge to the governor, and she knew she was going to be in a political storm,” he said, adding that she wasn’t swayed or cowed by prospective reactions.
Her tenacity was apparent early on, said St. Paul attorney Russell Jensen, who practiced law with Gearin’s uncle, longtime attorney Robert Gearin, and Ramsey County Judge Margaret Marrinan, who went to undergraduate school with Gearin at the College of St. Catherine in the 1960s.
“She was always very engaged and well-read,” Marrinan said of the collegiate Gearin, who earned a history degree in 1967.“I’m really going to miss her, and we’ve clashed on a number of issues.”
The chief judge serves as a guide on administrative issues in district court, overseeing the budget, representing the court to the County Board and public and handling appeals on some motions while also presiding over their own cases. Even if Gearin disagreed with someone, she always heard them out, unlike some chief judges who had been “heavy-handed,” Marrinan said.
Gearin plans to spend the first week after retirement helping train climatologists at William Mitchell College of Law, her alma mater, to better communicate at legislative hearings and in court. Her plans beyond that include more skiing and tennis, traveling the United States and continuing the teaching she has done for years.
Gearin also plans to play golf more, a passion that has perhaps equaled her love of the law.
“We’ve played many a round of golf together, and we were pretty even until the last few years when I started to beat her, and we haven’t played for the last month when she beat me,” Warner said with a laugh.
“Kathy doesn’t go down easily.”