The longest-serving judge on Minnesota’s district court bench ends his 36-year tenure on Wednesday.
Hennepin County Judge Kevin Burke turned 70 on Sept. 17, hitting the mandatory retirement age for a Minnesota judge.
“My critics said I was too young when I was appointed in 1984 so there is, I suppose, some poetic justice that I end my career at the end of September when I turn 70,” he said.
The line is signature Burke: factual, humorous and gently poignant. As much as anything, a hallmark of Burke’s time on the bench is his personality and commitment to kindness and openness with everyone from colleagues and defendants to the media.
Burke was appointed by then-Gov. Rudy Perpich and sworn in as a judge in July 1984. Over the course of his tenure, he served in numerous leadership positions both statewide and locally, including eight years as the chief judge of the busy district headquartered in Minneapolis.
Until the pandemic quashed travel this year, he traveled the world to train new judges, preach the gospel of “procedural fairness” and deliver a warning about the danger of judicial arrogance with another classic line, “If you don’t think you can get black robe disease you are practicing unsafe judging.”
His accomplishments are significant. He originated the groundbreaking drug court that opened in 1997 that steered defendants into intensive court-supervised treatment rather than prison and served as the model for DWI and veterans’ courts. All continue to this day.
Current Chief Judge Toddrick Barnette, who has worked in Hennepin County since he was a law student at the University of Minnesota in the early 1990s, said Burke’s leadership on the court extends beyond specific programs.
“There’s a lot of folks on our bench that would call Kevin and seek advice, especially when they’re in situations that might be controversial,” Barnette said. “He’s helped a lot of judges through some tough times.”
Judge Ned Wahl, appointed in 2012, said of Burke, “He cares deeply about people and the law and always strives for the best result for both.”
Burke recently won a state judicial community service award. Wahl and Judge Bev Benson wrote the nomination letter, saying Burke was a mentor to generations of students, lawyers and judges and “a thoughtful and tireless adviser, coach and confidante” for lawyers and judges with personal and professional problems.
Even when Barnette was overhauling drug court a few years ago, Burke was generous and didn’t interfere. “He never was disparaging about what I was doing,” Barnette said.
More often, Barnette said he’s sought Burke’s counsel — both as a young judge and recently as a new chief judge. “There’s no issue we’re facing that Kevin hasn’t had some good, sage advice on,” Barnette said.
Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty has known Burke since she was a law clerk in his office. The two have remained close.
“He was always challenging people to think about why they were doing what they were doing and to do it better,” she said. For example, she said, if a probation officer recommends 60 days in jail, Burke would ask, why not 90 instead, or 30?
As a leader, Moriarty said, he was never afraid to acknowledge mistakes or think about how the bench could do better.
His push to improve the bench continued into his final years of service. In 2016, he enlisted Moriarty’s help in circulating questionnaires to defendants about “experiences and attitudes” they experienced in courtrooms.
Burke wanted to find out how defendants felt about their courtroom experiences. Questions ranged from whether the defendants understood what happened in the courtroom and whether the judge showed concern and respect. He’s used the data in training sessions from Illinois to Australia.
A pillar of his teachings is that when defendants feel respected in the courtroom, they leave feeling better about what’s happened, but there’s also a practical result. “If you get people to understand what the order is and why it was issued, they’re more likely to obey it,” Burke said.
No surprise that the judge who doesn’t make spectators rise when he enters a courtroom is also a believer in empathy.
“The difficulty is it’s not a skill you can teach,” he said.
No one saw Burke’s courtroom compassion more closely than Tove Kooda, his longtime law clerk.
In a recent letter, she recalled the time a poor, young Black defendant showed up for a felony jury trial in the orange jumpsuit that is required jail attire. Burke ordered that the defendant be provided with street clothes. On the day of trial, the defendant was brought into court wearing new clothes with the telltale bright orange jail-issue flip-flops, Kooda said. No one had provided shoes.
“Without a request from anyone, and without fanfare, Kevin stepped off the bench, removed his own loafers and handed them” to the defendant, she said. “It was unacceptable to Kevin for the jury to have an indication” that the defendant was spending his nights in jail.
As he steps off the bench, Burke said he’s not bored, burned out or cynical, but he won’t waste time lamenting the mandatory retirement requirement. He’s got a joke for that, too.
“The way I describe it is I’m too old to be a judge, but too young to run for president or Speaker of the House,” Burke said.
The U.S. president is 74; his Democratic rival is 77 and the speaker of the U.S. House is 80.
Before the pandemic curbed global travel, Burke said he expected to transition into retirement with teaching and speaking engagements. Instead, he’ll be spending time on the golf course where he has a 7.1 handicap. His wife, Susan Burke, a fellow Hennepin County judge who remains on the bench, and their 15-year-old daughter Kate (4.5 handicap), share his passion for the sport.
On many days, the family can be found at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska. In his late 30s, Burke lost a friend and saw the importance of seizing the day. “I cashed out my IRA, joined Hazeltine and never regretted it,” he said.