Robert Carolan retired less than two weeks ago as a highly regarded Dakota County district court judge, but no moss will grow under his feet. This week, he and his wife, Meg, will return to Kosovo, where he'll preside over the new Constitutional Court for 18 months.

Carolan joins a team of international judges who are helping local judges write rules of law for their young nation. It's the first step in building democracy in the former Yugoslavian republic torn apart by war between ethnic Albanians and Serbians, as well as corruption, he said.

Carolan previously prosecuted war crimes in the Balkans. Nearly eight years ago, he and other judges from Minnesota were the first four U.S. judges to join a global team presiding over cases too sensitive for local judges, including organized crime and ethnic violence in the former Yugoslavian republic.

They've included the 2008 conviction of a Croatian commander who ran a POW camp in Herzegovina, Bosnia, where dozens of Bosnians were tortured and executed, and a Serbian man's conviction for assisting in rounding up and executing about 270 Bosnian men in July 1992.

Carolan, 65, of Mendota Heights, isn't going to Kosovo empty handed.

Last week, officials at Thomson Reuters in Eagan granted Carolan's request for free use of a legal database research service, Westlaw, for an electronic law library in Kosovo for a year or two.

"I'm thrilled," Carolan said. "This court started two years ago with a building and nothing else, and it's slowly building a library of books."

The electronic database will give access to legal treatises and publications worldwide, "which is just so critical for this court in writing decisions," he said. "It's effectively expanded the library of the court not only a hundred-fold, but a thousand-fold."

'Breath of fresh air'

Maybe it's his Midwest values or the Iowa farm boy in him, but Carolan is a man who usually asks for little. That's partly why he was well received by Kosovo's local judges, who were accustomed to European judges' requests for lavish chambers.

"Bob was happy to have a card table and folding chair and a small place to work," said First District Judge Phil Kanning, who also served in Kosovo. "He was just such a breath of fresh air for the local judges."

Carolan's presence in Kosovo has proved to be "of utmost importance," said Constitutional Court President Enver Hasani.

"The Western path for Kosovo has been traced and assured through the work of this Constitutional Court more than through the work of all other institutions of Kosovo taken together," he said.

Hasani also said Carolan teaches Kosovar judges about U.S. common law, so different from Kosovo's code system, which has no juries. It has trials by panels of professional judges and lay people.

Carolan was an international judge with the U.N. Mission in Kosovo from 2002 to 2003, where he presided over convictions for ethnic kidnappings, weapons smuggling, terrorism and murder.

From 2004 until 2005, he chaired the Judicial and Prosecutorial Council of Kosovo, which hired and restored the judges and prosecutors removed from office, beginning in 1989, by former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who was later indicted for war crimes. He died awaiting trial in The Hague.

In 2008-09, Carolan heard appeals of the War Crimes Chamber of the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, including cases of ethnic cleansing heard by panels of judges.

Since the Constitutional Court's first decision a year ago, Hasani said, belief in the constitution and the respect for human rights and rule of law "has increased in a scale that was not imaginable before."

Pipeline of judges

Carolan helped open a pipeline of a dozen or so Minnesota judges who served in the Balkans, said state Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson.

In 2002, U.S. District Judge John Tunheim arranged for Carolan and three judges from Hennepin and Ramsey counties to go as the first U.S. judges.

"Judge Carolan has been a real star in the legal systems in the Balkans," Tunheim said Friday.

"He has carefully blended the best of how American judges do their work with a keen understanding of local culture and traditions. Whether he realizes it or not, he has been a terrific teacher for the Kosovo judges."

Carolan, a First District judge in the south metro from 1987 through this month, is known for his humanity and sound decisions.

Among high-profile cases he heard was that of a South St. Paul woman convicted of fatally overdosing her 10-year-old son, trying to kill her daughter and attempting suicide. And there was Kelly Ritt, the Hastings woman convicted of a 1997 arson-murder of her disabled toddler.

New First District Judge Larry Clark, who prosecuted Ritt, said: "To be in front of him was a pleasure because you knew that regardless of his decision, you received a fair hearing and full consideration of your client's cause."

Carolan is compassionate, thoughtful, humble and dedicated, said other judges, lawyers and court employees.

He led, for example, the rewriting and simplifying of Minnesota's criminal rules, reducing word usage by 37 percent, Anderson said.

"He's one of our best, and I've known him since 1969," Anderson said. "He encompasses some of the best qualities you can find in a judge."

Joy Powell • 952-882-9017