Judges don’t often receive sage advice from the governors who appoint them. But before slipping on his black rope 25 years ago, Hennepin County Judge Philip Bush took to heart an insight into public service passed along by then-Gov. Rudy Perpich.
The governor told him to think carefully about friendships, because becoming a judge can change relationships, for better or worse.
“You never really know if somebody wants to be a friend or if it’s because of the nature of the job,” Bush said Perpich told him. “People treat you differently. You are a public official. And all your jokes are funny to people.”
A technology advocate and juvenile court reformer who cared deeply about his staff, Bush, 63, worked through his final court calendar March 6 before heading into an early retirement. He was the second-most-senior judge in the county’s judicial district.
Many colleagues, former law clerks and support staffers and even attorneys who handled cases in front of Bush say he leaves behind a gaping institutional and intellectual hole.
“He remained as vibrant and committed to the bench until the day he quit,” said Judge Kevin Burke, the only judge with more seniority than Bush. More than 50 percent of the county’s judicial district judges have less than five years’ experience.
Several judges paid their respects and continued to pick his brain at a going-away gathering at the Hennepin County Government Center a few hours before he turned in his office keys and ID card.
Tanya Bransford recalled that when she was a young judge in the early 1990s, Bush, the presiding judge for juvenile court, would send memos only by something relatively new called “e-mail.” When Bush, who referred to himself as a technology evangelist, starting talking about computer tablets, he joked that people thought he was discussing the biblical tablets carried by Moses.
Although a proponent of making the legal system more accessible through technology, he also stressed the importance of human interaction, colleagues say.
Bush, of Minneapolis, said being a judge is one of the best jobs in the world, but he’s happy to leave the bench before the mandatory retirement age of 70. Near his 50th birthday, he nearly died from complications during a minor surgery, so he’s extra appreciative of all opportunities in life.
6,000 days on the job
His road to a judgeship took a few twists. A St. Paul native, he dropped out of college before earning a master’s degree in criminology and comparative legal systems at the University of Sheffield in England. After law school at the University of Minnesota, he spent nearly a decade as a Hennepin County public defender.
He was urged by a few people to apply for a judgeship and believed he had a shot for it after a great interview with Perpich. The governor told him he was too young at 37, but encouraged him to try for the next opening. He did, and Perpich appointed him in 1989.
Bush calculated that he worked 6,000 days before retirement. He’s handled every imaginable criminal and civil case, but called juvenile court the most emotionally draining.
He spearheaded a novel process called extended juvenile jurisdiction that allows young offenders to receive a sanction enforced in juvenile court until age 21, along with an adult sentence that hangs over their heads if they mess up. Minnesota was the first state to implement it, and now more than a dozen states have a similar model.
“Some kids have drawn bad cards through no fault of their own,” he said. “You try and help them get their feet on the ground as much as you can.”
Wit, and gravity too
Minnesota Supreme Court Justice David Lillehaug spoke at Bush’s going-away event. He told a story about a lawyer handling a case in front of Bush who was warned by a colleague “to expect that Bush would know more about the case than you will know.”
Retired Hennepin County Judge Mark Wernick, who has known Bush since the 1970s, said he was his “go-to judge” when he needed to brainstorm legal issues.
Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge Denise Reilly, who worked on the same courthouse floor as Bush in Hennepin County, said he has a wickedly funny sense of humor. She was one of three judges assigned to the trial involving the ballot recount for the U.S. Senate race between Norm Coleman and Al Franken. As a prank, Bush sent a letter to the judges saying both sides had agreed to a settlement.
But Bush also admitted that being a judge can be stressful. The best part of the job is making decisions, and the worst part is “having to make the decisions,” he said.
“You make the decisions with the best information you have at the time,” he said. “Our decisions are understandably looked at with the benefit of hindsight.”
‘Calm and fair’
Retirement won’t take Bush completely away from the law. He plans to work occasionally as a fill-in senior judge for Hennepin County and to handle out-of-court alternative-dispute resolutions.
He loves woodworking, competes in the Birkebeiner cross-country ski race in Wisconsin and is learning photography from his wife, Kathy. He plans to do volunteer work to promote clean energy and spend time with his two children, who live out of state.
“I’m looking forward to having him back,” his wife said. “I’m really proud of him and his work.”
Al Goins was one of the many attorneys who attended Bush’s going-away event. The two have known each other since seventh grade.
“He was one of the most knowledgeable, calm and fair judges to sit on the bench,” he said. “I wish they would bring him back to train other judges.”