Roland Amundson rose to one of the highest seats in the Minnesota legal system as a judge on the state Court of Appeals.

He also came to know what it was like to be an inmate, serving time in prison for stealing from a trust fund he administered for his friend’s disabled daughter.

It was a combination of circumstance that, friends say, led Amundson to confront the challenges of the criminal justice system. After his release from prison, he wrote to public officials and spoke with those close to him about the need for reform, pushing for more inmate education programs and reducing the number of prisoners.

“We don’t need any more prisons in this state,” Amundson said in a 2006 interview with the Star Tribune. “You could empty out the prisons and put these people on work release. They’d be paying their own way, earning a wage, paying taxes, and staying with their families.”

Amundson, 68, died Nov. 16 of complications related to diabetes.

Known as Rollie to family and friends, Amundson was born in Minneapolis and graduated from Roosevelt High School. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in history and speech from Gustavus Adolphus College, a master’s degree in theology from the University of Chicago and a law degree from the University of Notre Dame.

“He was extremely smart,” said friend Joel Phillippi.

Before practicing law, Amundson was a Lutheran minister and youth pastor. He was involved in DFL politics, sat on the board of several organizations, including the American Swedish Institute and the Sons of Norway, and was a member of the Torske Klubben, a Norwegian club.

In 1975, he started his legal career in private practice, eventually serving on the faculty at William Mitchell College of Law, now Mitchell Hamline School of Law, and St. Catherine University. A William Mitchell magazine published in 1982 described Amundson as someone who relished the practice and teaching of law, noting he wanted his lectures to be “original and lively.”

Bruce Bouta, a former student of Amundson’s at Mitchell Hamline, recalled his mortgage law class being popular. Bouta said Amundson cared about showing his students the social and economic impacts mortgages could have on people. “He was well-liked and was passionate about the subject matter,” Bouta said.

Amundson met his longtime partner, Mark Letourneau, during his time teaching. They adopted four boys — Christian, Erik, Michael and Andrew — from Russia in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Amundson became a Hennepin County judge in 1988, and in 1991, Gov. Rudy Perpich elevated him to the Minnesota State Court of Appeals, where he remained until 2002.

That year, Amundson pleaded guilty to five felony counts for embezzling more than $300,000 from his friend’s daughter’s trust, which he oversaw. At the time, judges were not allowed to oversee trust funds, but Amundson had argued the case was sensitive and needed his supervision. He was disbarred and sentenced to 3½ years in prison.

After his release, Amundson led a quieter life, slowed when his diabetes led to the amputation of one leg, Phillippi said. But he remained a storyteller, a lover of arts, classical music and literature.

Boyd Koehler, a professor emeritus at Augsburg College was among the friends who bonded with Amundson over classical and gospel music. Koehler said he was impressed with Amundson’s knowledge and use of the Norwegian language and admired his parenting skills.

“I regarded Rollie as an incredibly generous and wonderful friend,” Koehler said. “I will profoundly miss his wit and wisdom.”

Amundson is survived by Letourneau and their four children, and his sisters Kris Osgood and Mary Amundson Campbell, all from Twin Cities area. Services have been held.