William Posten is remembered for overseeing some controversial and chaotic cases in his 23 years as a Hennepin County judge — all with remarkable calm.
“He was a very patient person,” said Kevin Burke, a judge in Hennepin County District Court since the 1980s. “I can’t remember anyone saying Bill Posten raised his voice about anything. Not that he didn’t have strong feelings.”
Posten, one of the earliest black state district court judges in Minnesota, died Dec. 4 at age 87.
“There are judges who aren’t great listeners and have kind of made up their mind,” Burke said. “But [Posten] truly listened, a hallmark of being a very good trial judge.”
Posten, of Minneapolis, was born in East Moline, Ill., and graduated from Augustana College in nearby Rock Island. He then moved to Minneapolis to live with relatives, landing a job at Greyhound bus lines. Posten did a stint in the Army in the early 1950s.
When he returned, he went back to work at Greyhound and attended law school at night. Posten earned his law degree in 1959 and became an attorney for the Social Security Administration before joining the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office in 1961.
He served as a prosecutor for many years — heading the county’s criminal division for a time — before being appointed to the bench in 1973 by then Gov. Wendell Anderson. “He found that’s where he belonged,” said Polly Posten, his wife.
Polly and Bill met in the mid-1970s, their first date at the revolving restaurant atop the old St. Paul Radisson hotel. At the time, Bill was a widower raising five children alone. Polly was a teacher who loved kids.
Among Posten’s biggest cases as judge was the 1991 retrial of Leonard Richards, a Minneapolis man accused of murdering his attorney. After what was believed to be the longest criminal trial ever in Hennepin County — and the most expensive in state history at the time — a jury found Richards guilty.
Another major case adjudicated by Posten was a lawsuit brought by Minnesota abortion providers. They claimed that a 1978 Minnesota law, which banned state funding for Medicaid-eligible low-income women, was unconstitutional.
Posten agreed, ruling in 1994 that the law was written too broadly to withstand court scrutiny, and that it impinged on constitutional rights to privacy and equal protection. The Minnesota Supreme Court upheld Posten’s decision.
Posten also was known for his 1989 decision allowing a 65-year-old woman to determine her rapist’s fate. She could have the defendant go to trial and hope for a conviction and a nine-year prison term. Or she could accept a plea agreement with a 4 ½-year sentence and immediate incarceration.
She chose the latter, and in a news story praised Posten’s kindness for allowing her to decide.
“He treated everyone with the utmost respect,” said Mark Cosimini, a retired public defender in Hennepin County who was Posten’s law clerk in the early 1980s. “All litigants were heard, even if maybe he should have cut them off,” Cosimini said. “He gave them their day in court.”
Posten is survived by Polly, his wife of 43 years; children Scott, Elaine and Melissa; 13 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren. He is preceded in death by his first wife, Elizabeth, and two children, Karen and David.
A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday at St. Joan of Arc Church in south Minneapolis, with visitation one hour before.