Former Hennepin County District Court Judge Bruce Hartigan passed away last week after a struggle with cancer and stroke. Judge Kevin Burke wrote an email about the judge that he gave Minnesota Lawyer permission to publish.
There are a lot of people on our bench who may not have known Bruce Hartigan. He was appointed to the bench by Governor Perpich in 1988. Bruce graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School. He had spent his career as a criminal defense lawyer in solo practice prior to his appointment.
Bruce grew up in tough conditions and at one point in his life spent several years in an orphanage. Mike, his brother, was a long time District Court employee mostly in the Violations Bureau. Pat, another brother, was a Minneapolis police officer. Pat was “the bank” for a lot of down and out Native Americans. They would give Pat their money and occasionally GA checks so they could tide themselves over for the month.
There was no doubt that Bruce was smart. Kathleen Blatz and Rob Lynn had chambers on the same floor as Bruce and, as crazy as Bruce could be, he was a good resource for them and others to ask questions (particularly if you had time for very long answers).
Bruce had a courtroom demeanor that occasionally got him in trouble. In the mid-1990s Bruce successfully sued WCCO for a story they did on him. Aside from Jessie Ventura, there are not a lot of plaintiffs’ verdicts or significant settlements of public figures who try to sue for defamation. Joe Friedberg represented Bruce and at the time I was puzzled, “How could Joe, as good a lawyer as he was, convince anyone that it was possible to damage Bruce’s reputation as a judge?” But I was wrong. Joe and Bruce got a lot of money. By the spring of 1996 the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran an editorial encouraging someone to run against Bruce…..and indeed the President of the Hennepin County Bar Association did. Predictably there was more bad press and, again, Bruce sued. The Star Tribune reported:
“Hennepin County District Judge Bruce Hartigan has sued Cowles Media Co. and a Star Tribune reporter, alleging that two articles about his reelection bid and a clarification contained false information.
“The suit alleges that a May 20 article written by David Peterson incorrectly said that Hartigan had been accused of disregarding people’s constitutional rights in court and had refused to comment about the allegation.
“After Hartigan demanded a retraction, the suit said, the Star Tribune ‘responded by publishing a cynically arrogant `clarification’ which itself contains false and disparaging statements about Hartigan. The clarification said that one person had made the accusation and that Hartigan had not been found to have violated anyone’s rights. …”
That fall Bruce showed up at the editorial board, much to the shock of the editors. They had invited the candidates but surely thought Bruce would not come. The Star Tribune had run an editorial encouraging someone to run against him and there was this pending lawsuit against Cowles Media. Bruce appeared for the interview with the editorial board and began by saying, “I am here to test whether the editorial page is really separate from the news side of the Star Tribune. I sued the news side.” A few days later the Minneapolis Star Tribune endorsed Bruce for reelection and he beat the President of the Hennepin County Bar Association.
Bruce was a co-owner of Tommy’s Burned Down Café on Madeline Island, whose slogan was “We Cheat The Other Guy And Pass The Savings On To You.” (Bruce had a sense of humor.) While on the bench Bruce suffered from a stroke but was able to work until he was 70. In recent years he battled cancer with a degree of dignity a lot of us admired.
Whatever his faults, [District Court Judge] Kathryn Quaintance got it right, “So breaks a noble heart—We shall not look upon his like again.” Bruce had several children. Annie is a doctor and Kevin is an international aid worker who has been stationed in Haiti, Africa and is now in Southeast Asia. Bruce lived on Douglas Ave in Kenwood for over 40 years……on a month to month tenancy. Bruce was not one to be tied down. If you ever visited his place, you knew two things. Bruce was a vociferous reader who loved to put a little coffee in his sugar. Bruce Hartigan may have been a character, but he was a good man first.