Judge Gary Larson
Born: May 23, 1943; Covington, Va.
Education: University of Minnesota Law School, J.D., 1967; University of Minnesota, B.A. (History), 1964
Employment: Judge, Hennepin County District Court, 1985-present; Private Practice, 1968-85; Attorney, Laketown Township, 1978-85; City Attorney, Shorewood, 1981-85, Tonka Bay 1972-85, Excelsior, 1979-81; Law Clerk, Hon. John F. Cahill, 3rd Judicial District, 1967-68
Professional Associations: Minnesota State Bar Association; Hennepin County Bar Association; Minnesota District Judges Association
Personal: Wife, Judith Allen Kim; seven children; seven grandchildren
Hobbies: Cooking, entertaining, riding bicycle, refurbishing a wooden canvas canoe
After serving nearly two decades as a judge on the Hennepin County bench, Judge Gary Larson will soon be taking on additional responsibility as an administrator.
On July 1, Larson will begin a two-year term as Hennepin County District Court assistant chief judge, when Judge Lucy Wieland takes over as chief. Wieland has served the last four years as assistant to Judge Kevin Burke.
Larson recently told Minnesota Lawyer that he intends to fully support Wieland and the goals that she sets for the county during her term as its judicial leader. And if things progress the way he hopes, Larson looks forward to taking over the top job after Wieland completes her service as chief. Because most chief judges serve two two-year terms, Larson anticipates ascending to the top spot in 2007.
“The assistant chief is really a preparation for being chief,” he says. “It’s my hope, if things work out, to be chief. It’s important to get into the system, to know the players and what’s going on, and to get some background to become chief.”
Serving as assistant chief will be Larson’s first foray into judicial administration, although he did once unsuccessfully run for the assistant chief post.
The county’s District Court judges elect both the chief judge and the assistant chief judge. Interested candidates actually have to go out and campaign for the positions, Larson observes. “You go out and call people and talk to them and twist arms,” he adds with a smile.
As assistant chief judge, Larson says that he will become familiar with the people involved in the system and learn exactly how it works. He explains that there “is a lot of dealing over in St. Paul with a lot of different groups and agencies” and that he intends to get to know the various agency heads, as well as judges from other districts around the state.
“That’s important,” he says. “And I’ll fill in when [Wieland] is not available. But part of my job is preparation to become chief.”
Larson will undoubtedly be a busy man for the next several years. He explains that the additional responsibility of serving as the assistant chief comes without a reduction in his workload. “I don’t get any break on my caseload at all. The chief does; the assistant doesn’t.”
Larson says his desire to try his hand at administration was natural for him, having served in leadership positions since he was appointed to the Hennepin County Municipal Court bench in 1985 by then-Gov. Rudy Perpich.
“I was very instrumental in the unification of the municipal and district court bench. I’ve been in leadership ever since then,” he says. “It’s just something that flows naturally.”
Larson says he is confident that he and Wieland will continue the progress made by Burke towards his goal of making the Hennepin County District Court the best one in the United States.
“Kevin [Burke] declared that he wanted this to be the best urban court in the country,” Larson observed. “Lucy [Wieland] and I are fully behind that and fully supported Kevin in that. And I am sure Lucy wants to continue with [those efforts].”
Larson says that the overriding goal of the incoming administration will be “to continue to be the best we can be, to serve our community.”
While he is looking forward to the administrative job, Larson is sure it won’t be without its challenges. He anticipates the biggest administrative difficulty facing the state’s most populous county will be implementing the shift from county funding to state funding under the new statewide court system.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge to try and be both a team player for our own county and to be a team player statewide, to recognize important goals for ourselves but to also recognize statewide goals [and] to balance those interests — the state interest, the needs of the other judicial districts and our own needs,” Larson observes. “The interests of the judges from Thief River Falls are very different from the interests of the judges in Hennepin County and we have to figure out how to balance those interests statewide.”
Two decades of judging
Larson says several things drove him to apply for a seat on the bench almost 20 years ago. One is the public service aspect of being a judge, something Larson says he has always valued.
“I am very public service oriented; I did lots and lots of community stuff before I was a judge,” he says.
As a lawyer, Larson spent a lot of time in court observing judges, eventually realizing that it was a job he could do just as well as some of them and actually better than others. “So that was part of it,” he says with a laugh.
Another attraction was the idea of having a more consistent work schedule. Larson recalls that as a solo practitioner, he was so busy that he would often go into the office on Sunday morning while his family went to church. He finally decided that that was not what he wanted for his family life. “So that was also part of it, more regular hours,” he acknowledges.
In discussing his journey to the bench, Larson says he was never very political and recalls going through a commission process similar to the one used to appoint District Court judges today.
“I just knew a couple of people that spoke up for me. It wasn’t a big political process,” he says. “There was actually a commission in those days, I don’t know if it was a formal commission, but Perpich used a commission.”
Larson adds that in his opinion Minnesota’s system
of judicial elections, combined with gubernatorial appointments to vacancies, is a good one.
“I think [the current system] has worked wonderfully. … I think the process that we use with the committee, the selections, the interviewing, I think it’s a wonderful process,” Larson observes. “I don’t know that you can ever give the public enough information to have them make an informed vote.”
Being on the bench has its challenges, even after 19 years, according to Larson. He says that it’s important that judges not let the workload get to them and to find ways to avoid being surly with the attorneys and parties who appear before them.
“Whatever happens out in that courtroom … is really important to the person that it’s happening to,” Larson observes. “Some cases you obviously know are important but sometimes you get frustrated with people and you wonder why are they here? Well, they are here because there is no place else for them to go.”
Larson runs a tight ship. “I don’t fool around in the courtroom and I want people to do things the way they are supposed to do them,” he says.
Larson has posted notes on the bench to remind him to smile and to remember that the people in the courtroom are doing the best they can. He says he put the reminders up because he’s been told he can be somewhat less than jovial while he’s on the bench.
“Apparently I have a very sour demeanor in the courtroom,” he says. “I know that because people tell me that. … Back here [in chambers] I am much different. I don’t do that consciously; it’s just something that happens.”
A few of the things the judge views as important in his courtroom are timeliness, preparation and collegiality.
“I like [attorneys] to be on time — that happens to be a thing with me,” he says. “I do try to start on time. I’m never perfect, but I start pretty close to on time or I apologize and explain why. And I am always prepared when I go into the courtroom. I’ve always read the briefs; I like the lawyers to read the briefs. And I want them to represent their clients, but I want them to do it in a pleasant, honest, congenial and collegial way.”
According to Larson, the biggest issuing facing the state’s judiciary today is money — or the lack thereof. He explains that the recent cuts to the court system, as well as to the county in general, have made it very difficult for him to effectively assist the people who appear before him.
“I need to have tools to work with to give people tools to change their lives. Me standing there waving my finger at them is not an effective tool — I learned that right away,” he says. “I need tools to give people some training and programming and information to help them change their lives so that they are not back here.”
Larson expresses particular concern over the lack of adequate funding for the public defense system.
“It’s a three-fold thing — prosecutors, public defenders and judges,” he says. “If any of those three gets out of balance, it makes the other two not very effective. … You have to have all three of them be in balance to make the justice system work.”
The lack of funding spills over into other areas affecting the court system as well, like judicial workload and court security.
Larson says that the safety of judges has long been an issue with him. He explains that he started worrying about getting shot when he started hearing family law cases 10 or 15 years ago. But recently, Larson turned his concern from judges to court staff.
“After the shooting that occurred [last September], I realized what an impact it had on our staff, our employees. They are terrified,” he says. “They are the ones that are out on the counter, meeting the public — the angry public. There is no security for them. So I shifted my concerns here to our staff, the people that I really need to be concerned about for security.”
Larson will face his fourth judicial election this year. He has never had an opponent, and readily acknowledges that he hopes that he doesn’t get one this year either. If his seat is contested, however, Larson is confident that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Republic Party of Minnesota v. White will not affect the way he will campaign. (In White, the high court struck down as unconstitutional Minnesota’s rule that barred judicial candidates from announcing their views on disputed legal and political issues.)
“I am not prepared to go out and announce my position on every single thing that may come before me,” Larson observes. “I’ve found the nonpartisan nature of our elections in Minnesota, in my opinion, to be a much better system than the system that they have in Texas or Florida and other places where they are out campaigning and raising huge amounts of money. I hope we don’t go that route.”
Larson has enjoyed his time on the bench and hopes to remain in the position until he retires. He says that he has no desire to move on to an appellate court and no intention of going anyplace else.
“I love being a District Court judge,” he says. “I see it as a service and a contribution to my community. I work hard at being a judge; I work very hard at it. I study; I read the cases; I read the briefs. This is a very serious job. … I want to do a good job and I want to be known in the community as a good judge.”
— Michelle Lore