After 12 years as Minneapolis' top lawyer, working under three mayors and putting her stamp on the city's history, Susan Segal is leaving City Hall to don the black robe.
Segal, 64, will join the Minnesota Court of Appeals later this month, after Gov. Tim Walz appointed her to replace retiring Judge Jill Flaskamp Halbrooks. Her new position will be a dramatic change of pace from Minneapolis, where she represented the city in its biggest legal battles of the last decade.
Segal and her team defended the city in police brutality lawsuits, took on negligent landlords and issued controversial opinions that influenced the construction of U.S. Bank Stadium and the city's minimum-wage law. She's credited for bringing about lasting criminal justice reforms, but also became the target of criticism from those who thought she took stands that were more political than legal.
"She's a small Jewish woman with a mountainous personality," said Mayor Jacob Frey, who shares the cultural connection with Segal. "She'll drum you into the ground if you're not falling on the side of justice. She handles herself with grace, poise, and an occasional flourish of profanity, and I love her."
In a recent interview, Segal said her experience balancing the different demands of the job, both from inside and outside City Hall, has prepared her for the new one.
"I'm excited about the change, but I've loved this job," Segal said. "This is as interesting a legal challenge, working as a lawyer, that you can get."
Segal said much of the criticism aimed at her comes with the position, and with cities being asked to take on more and more duties because of gridlock at higher levels of government. While she was tasked with advising the mayor, council and city departments, her ultimate responsibility, she said, was the people of Minneapolis.
"I love the camaraderie of being at City Hall. And just being surrounded by interesting people, whether they're advocates for this or that, community members," she said. "It's just a really rich environment with a lot of diversity."
Big cases, steady change
Born in Minneapolis and raised in St. Louis Park, Segal credits her family for showing her the path toward public office. She described her mother, Gloria Segal, who served in the Legislature, as a "bigger-than-life" person who shined a light on mental health issues and championed women's rights.
Segal's tenure as city attorney began while she was already deep in her career in both private and public practice.
She was first nominated to the position by Mayor R.T. Rybak in early 2008. At the time she was working across the block as an assistant Hennepin County attorney.
"Initially, I was like, 'No, I don't think I want that job, because everybody is going to be mad at you all the time,' " Segal said.
She jumped into the fray after her appointment, representing the city during a drawn-out pension lawsuit and a recount in the U.S. Senate race between Al Franken and Norm Coleman.
In the years that followed, Segal defended police officers in lawsuits and negotiated millions in payouts for misconduct. The city was regularly on the docket of the Minnesota Supreme Court as her team defended the city's new ranked-choice voting system, anti-discrimination ordinances, labor rules and more. Meanwhile, she led an office tasked with prosecuting misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors committed in the city.
Segal sought creative solutions to change the way cases were prosecuted by her office and reduce recidivism.
She placed an emphasis on domestic violence, leading a team that increased conviction rates in such cases by 50%, according to the city. She started a program that provided follow-up visits with family therapists and police officers for families with repeated reports of domestic abuse.
In 2012, Segal became a central figure in the heated debate over whether the city should help pay for the construction of a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings. Her legal opinion that the deal shouldn't be subject to a referendum helped persuade a wavering council member to approve the deal, but her argument was later refuted by a judge. Voters never got to weigh in directly, however, because the Legislature blocked the requirement for a referendum.
"This is a really hard job and you're going to get blamed for kind of doing your job," Segal said. Still, she learned the position should be carried "in a way where you're not too influenced on the politics of the issue."
Her last year on the job was one of her toughest. In May, she arranged a $20 million settlement with the family of police-shooting victim Justine Ruszczyk Damond, the largest payout of its kind in Minnesota history. In August, she dealt with the deaths of her brother and father, both of which happened only weeks apart.
Though she believed the office made progress under her leadership, racial disparities and the "two different worlds" remain stark, she said.
"They're broad issues that have been going on in this country for centuries," said Segal, who remembered discrimination against Jews in the city. "It's hard to understand because we pride ourselves in being a progressive place. But it does have this dark history."
Praise, some disappointment
Segal kept her position through Rybak's successor, Betsy Hodges. After Frey defeated Hodges in the 2017 election, he kept nearly all of her department heads, including Segal.
The decision faced pushback from Council Member Cam Gordon and police accountability advocate Dave Bicking, who delayed her reappointment.
Bicking and Communities United Against Police Brutality, of which he is a member, consistently opposed Segal, who he said fought more in defense of the city's actions than for those hurt by the justice system.
"Though there have been some reforms, I don't think that they really should be what she'd be remembered for," he said. "She should be remembered as taking a highly political position ... and serving the mayor and City Council far more than she serves the residents of the city."
In contrast, Mary Moriarty, the chief public defender for Hennepin County, said Segal was "the leader among prosecutors in Hennepin County on system reform."
"She was extremely creative and innovative in problem solving, and I think she really wanted to develop services that would help our clients get out of the system and keep from coming back in it," she said.
Segal and Moriarty worked closely on a restorative court program and a recent proposal to pair people charged with certain misdemeanors with social workers instead of having to pay bail.
As an appellate court judge, Segal will hear arguments across the state. The stress and public nature of representing the city will be replaced with what she said would be "a lot of reading and writing." She'll commute to St. Paul, where her husband, Myron Frans, serves as Walz's management and budget commissioner.
The practical experience at City Hall will help her as judge, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said.
"I don't think she'll get black-robe disease, I don't think she'll get holier than thou," he said. "People who have served in public law positions, particularly leadership like this, make very good judges because they've already had to battle the competing public interests much more than people who totally served in private practice."
Last week, council members praised Segal for her legal advice, toughness, humor and institutional knowledge. Council Member Lisa Goodman said Segal offered "incredible mentorship" to other women at City Hall.
Inside the council chambers Friday, Council President Lisa Bender read a resolution in her honor. Segal stood beside her smiling, surrounded by more than a dozen women she led at the city attorney's office.