Jeanne L. Schleh is one of the lucky ones. After almost 32 years as an assistant Ramsey County attorney, the passion she feels for her job almost literally glimmers around her as she talks about prosecuting homicide, sex assault, domestic assault and child abuse cases.
"When I started 32 years ago, I thought the ultimate thing would be to be a judge," Schleh said. "I got over that very quickly. I haven't wanted to move. I've zigged and zagged a lot ... but once I got to this point, it was like I was in the groove. I found where I was supposed to be."
Although Schleh retired this month, she said that passion "will be a lifelong part of my identity."
During her more than two decades as a trial lawyer, Schleh watched laws change and evolve as society has changed and evolved.
"It's really interesting to see ... how the public has become more aware, how prosecutors have begun pushing the envelope on things we didn't used to," she said.
For the past nine or so years, Schleh handled appeals almost exclusively.
"What was really fun, and it was sort of an unexpected bonus, is that I really had the sense that I could use that 22 years of trial experience now at the appellate level to shape the law," she said.
Schleh's last big project was the 2008 Manual for the Prosecution of Child Abuse, a compendium of case laws, trial practice, sentencing guidelines and more for prosecutors statewide.
"I suppose it's my legacy," Schleh said. But her colleagues and supporters said her legacy extends much farther.
"Her passion is the safety of women and children," said Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner. "She has done more to advance that cause than any other single individual that I can think of.
"She's been involved in every piece of legislation related to battered women or sex abuse of children or abuse of children in general that's been debated at the Capitol in the last 20 years."
Gaertner turned to Schleh to fashion and run a case-review project in the early 2000s to see whether DNA evidence would exonerate or confirm the guilt of offenders convicted of homicides and sex crimes. She ran the evidence-retention project and eyewitness identification reform project and helped shaped child abuse and domestic abuse protocols.
"Jeanne is the kind of lawyer where you get an idea of how you want to change things, how you want to improve the justice system, and then you hand the ball to her and say 'Figure out how to make this work,'" Gaertner said.
Giving credit to others
When asked about cases she's particularly proud of, Schleh points to two: the prosecution of serial rapist Tony D. Jackson in 1997, and convicting Vincent Bauer of first-degree murder in 1998 for the death of his estranged wife. Schleh gives much of the credit to police investigators.
Neil Nelson, now commander of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, was a young homicide investigator on the Bauer case. He said recently it was Schleh who inspired them.
"She expected so much of us and she worked so hard that you didn't want to let her down," he said. "She raised the level of performance of everybody around here."
Schleh hadn't always planned on being a lawyer.
After graduating from St. Paul Central High School and Oberlin College in Ohio, she considered a career in the foreign service. But after studying in Germany for a year, she decided that she definitely did not want to work for the U.S. government.
After earning a master's in speech communications, she said it was "on a lark" that she took the LSAT and started night school at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.
She was hired by then-County Attorney Bill Randall in 1976.
Why retire from a job she clearly loves?
"Well, I'm 65. I want to leave before they start saying she really should have left by now," she said. "Six months ago, I was not in this place, but we have a lot of friends our age and younger who have retired and not one of them regrets it."
Schleh and her husband, Bob Stanich, live in Minneapolis. Their only daughter is finished with college. Schleh plans to do some writing. The couple plan to do a lot more traveling. A trip to Australia and New Zealand is in the works.
It's clear she'll be missed, not just in the county attorney's office or the courthouse, but in the community.
"Jeanne Schleh has been a strong unyielding advocate for battered women and their children," said Shelley Johnson Cline, executive director of the St. Paul Intervention Project. "She's one of those people who just have such a dynamic personality that she creates change. We are deeply going to miss her."
Pat Pheifer • 651-298-1551