Since graduating from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1977, Cleary has been a solo practice attorney, a public defender, director of Minnesota’s lawyers’ ethics office, an adjunct law professor, a state district court judge, and member and then chief judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals before officially retiring in April 2020.
“You couldn’t have planned it out,” Cleary said of his career. “It has been really satisfying.”
For Cleary’s first 20 years, he was a private practice attorney, including work as a public defender that led him to handling a landmark freedom-of-expression case. He represented a juvenile charged with putting a burning cross in the yard of an African American family. In the early 1990s, Cleary challenged a St. Paul hate crime ordinance on constitutional grounds.
After the Minnesota Supreme Court unanimously upheld the ordinance, Cleary appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court., which unanimously ruled for his client in 1992. Afterward, Cleary wrote about that experience in an award-winning book, “Beyond the Burning Cross,” which was published in 1995.
“I realized it was a very interesting case,” Cleary said. “Without an agent, I put together my own book proposal. I sent it out to the six largest book publishing houses in the country and it was picked up by Random House.”
Cleary’s next stop: director of Minnesota Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility and Client Security Board. During this period, he wrote articles on professional responsibility topics. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, teaching legal ethics.
In 2002, Cleary became a state district court judge, where he served until 2011, when Gov. Mark Dayton named him to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. He was appointed chief judge in 2013.
Cleary said his interest in law dates back to high school when his father was a lawyer in the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office. “That gave me an interest in the law in watching him,” Cleary said.
Read more about Minnesota Lawyer’s superb class of Attorneys of the Year for 2020 here.
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