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Attorneys of the Year: Judge Kathleen Gearin

Capture1Ramsey County Judge, retired

After 26 years of murder cases, government shutdowns, and everything in between, Judge Kathleen Gearin hung up her robe in 2013. She said she looked forward to being able to “catch her breath and just enjoy things.”

But after just a few months she returned to the courtroom as a senior judge. Gearin also teaches child advocacy at William Mitchell and is planning a seminar for judges on complex cases. Gearin might have retired, but she’s not ready to stop contributing to the legal community.

Gearin was a high school social studies teacher for four years before she attended William Mitchell College of Law. She spent her first years as a lawyer working as a prosecutor for Ramsey County. After 10 years in that role, she was elected to a district court judgeship. In 2004, she became the assistant chief judge of the 2nd Judicial District. In 2008, she became the chief judge.

Being a leader to other judges is something she embraced long before she was named chief judge, Gearin said.

“I’ve tried to be an example of what I think a judge should be. The encouragement for new judges is so important. The job has so many stresses,” Gearin said. “I’ve always tried to be there and answer questions, work with and encourage younger judges.”

Over the years she has been honored with awards from the Minnesota District Judges Foundation, the MSBA Public Law Section, the YWCA, the Minnesota Education Association, and other groups.

Gearin had what was, perhaps, an unusual number of complex and high profile cases during her career. Some of that she attributes to her high profile role as chief judge. But others likely were assigned to her because of her skills.

“I think I was able to handle the complexity and the pressures of some of those high publicity cases, and I think that was good for the judiciary’s reputation and good for other judges to see,” Gearin said.

Gearin’s former clerk and St. Paul City Councilman Chris Tolbert worked for her when she handled thorny issues surrounding the protests and arrests at the 2008 Republican National Convention. In that situation and others, including the recount of the Al Franken Senate race and a case where she ruled against then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Tolbert said, Gearin worked for what was right under the law.

“She never blinked,” Tolbert said. “She always did what was right.”

Gearin speaks passionately of the moments in court when you have the chance to make a connection with a defendant. Recently, while filling in as a senior judge in Hennepin County, Gearin engaged two Native American defendants in conversation a book she had recently read about reservation life. The conversation was brief, the moment rather small, but in the time of their exchange, Gearin said she noticed the demeanor of each defendant change.

“I felt good, because I made a connection,” Gearin said. “Maybe it won’t make a difference. Maybe it won’t change your life. But when you have those opportunities, you need to try to use them.”

When Gearin began her judicial career in 1987, few women were on the bench, and women were subject to greater scrutiny than their male colleagues, Gearin said. But over time a camaraderie among judges developed, and Gearin has never seriously doubted her choice.

“It gave me an opportunity to use the talents I had, and it gave me the opportunity to grow. The thing about being a judge is that you always have to try to be at the top of your game,” she said. “You can always improve, you can always learn more, you can always get more patient, you can always get better.”

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