All Things Considered
a liberal arts background helps Judge Kathleen Gearin '67 look at issues from every angle.
By Sharon Rolenc
Throughout her distinguished legal career, Kathleen Gearin '67 has encountered murderers, child abusers, political games players and protesters. She started her career in law as a Ramsey County prosecutor in 1975. She was elected judge to the second judicial district in 1986 and re-elected in every race since. In 2008, Gearin's peers appointed her chief judge.
She has tried or been involved in numerous high-profile cases since her promotion, including the Republican National Convention (RNC) protests in 2008, the Franken-Coleman U.S. Senate recount in 2009, former Governor Tim Pawlenty's budget unallotment and last summer's state government shutdown.
Gearin's sunny office on the 12th floor of the Ramsey County Courthouse in downtown St. Paul is decorated with milestones from her professional life, including the famous Raggedy Ann doll she used as a Ramsey County prosecutor. A plaque on her desk states: "The buck pauses here."
You've been a vocal proponent of the liberal arts. how has that laid a foundation for your career?
The courtroom is an intense place, very emotional and sometimes very competitive. A liberal arts education can help you put that in perspective. Many of the people we see are the have-nots or people who have experienced discrimination. A firm understanding of history and literature can help. When I did the unallotment decision, which was quite controversial, I went back to my American history on separation of powers and tried to write it in a way people could understand.
What stays with you, specifically, from St. Kate's?
Even the science courses were helpful. Cases will come up that involve medical malpractice or medical devices and products liability.
How do you deal with being in the public eye?
Generally you can't talk about cases while they are pending. But when you have something like the RNC, the public has a right to know what we are going to do. Protesters often show up at political conventions, which can lead to arrests and a lot of controversy. I told our staff that we had to be prepared for anything. From Labor Day through Friday, we were the face of the American justice system. I am very proud that we never looked bad that week. We kept the doors open. We kept the process transparent, speedy and fair. We provided due process.
What's the most difficult decision you've ever had to make?
But the hardest case I've ever handled was the government shutdown. It wasn't over when I wrote the decision. Cases came to me every day that either challenged my order or weren't covered in my original order. Every decision was crucial for the individual or the business or the nonprofit. For about two months I basically didn't have a life.
You taught high school after graduating with honors from St. Kate's. How did you move from teaching into law?
I considered law school, but I was also interested in anthropology. So I applied for law school and went for a dig in Meron, Israel. I was accepted by three law schools. That felt more practical than a graduate degree in anthropology because I could work while I attended William Mitchell College of Law at night.
Where did your legal career begin?
Tell me the story of the doll.
How did you transition from being a prosecutor to a judge?
I told them I had to think about it: "What if I run and lose? It's such a public thing." But I was at a point in my life where I could see myself in a different role. I was considered an aggressive lawyer in the good sense — a good trial lawyer. But sometimes I liked seeing both sides, and that's what a judge does. I think it fits best with my personality. So I ran and got elected and have been elected ever since. My last election was in 2010. I'm 67, and judges retire at age 70, so I won't run again.
What advice would you give other Katies considering a career in law?
I would also advise students to take care of themselves. Work isn't everything for me, and that has helped me deal with the stress in my professional life. Last fall, I went up north to play golf with my 30-year-old nephew. Tonight I'll play women's doubles with my tennis league. I love teaching in law schools.
Keep yourself active. You will be better in your occupation if it's not everything in your life.