February 2012 cover SCAN ;St. Catherine University St. Catherine University
February 2012
 
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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."

"The hardest case I've ever handled was the government shutdown. Every decision was crucial for the individual or the business or the nonprofit. For about two months I basically didn't have a life." - Kathleen Gearin '67

You've been a vocal proponent of the liberal arts. how has that laid a foundation for your career?
As an attorney, you see the other side only to destroy it — to attack and weaken it. As a prosecutor, you have a duty to justice, not just your client. But as a judge, you have to see the issues of the case from all perspectives, and I really believe a liberal arts education helps you with that.

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?
St. Catherine was an encouraging place to be, to let your mind explore new places and not be afraid of asking questions. All of my professors demanded good writing and logical, critical thinking, and that's helped me a lot. I am always aware that what I write is going to be read — especially the controversial decisions.

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?
Well, I see it as part of my job. As a judge, and especially as a chief judge, you have to be aware of the importance of communicating with the public. The government shutdown was of such major public interest that I allowed cameras in the courtroom, which is unusual.

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?
Just one? I've often joked that I've had the chief judgeship from hell. Every first-degree murder I've had that's actually gone to trial is really difficult. You have to be at the top of your game.

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?
The Catholic high school I had been teaching in closed, so I interviewed for jobs in the public schools. This was in 1971 — and they actually told me they couldn't hire me because I was a woman. Social studies and history teachers were almost entirely coaches, so they needed a man.

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?
I started at the Ramsey County prosecutors' office right after graduation. I specialized in child abuse, both in juvenile court and adult criminal court. The grand jury used to hate to see me walk in because they knew another baby must have been killed.

Tell me the story of the doll.
I was the first person in Minnesota who used a doll in court. Newsweek did a story about it in 1984. The reporter was at a trial I did with a 12-year-old who was mentally challenged. I thought the doll could help this girl testify. I asked her, "Would you show where he touched you?" She lifted up the dress and said, "He put his peanut here." That's all she needed to do, and the verdict was guilty. It was effective. Now they have more anatomically correct dolls, but this one did just as well for me.

How did you transition from being a prosecutor to a judge?
In 1986, a judge retired but left his seat open. Two very important women took me to lunch and told me there were not enough women judges and I should run. Rosalie Wahl, the first woman on the Minnesota Supreme Court, was one of them. She had been my teacher in law school. Harriet Lansing, a friend of mine who was on the Minnesota Court of Appeals, was the other one.

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?
Cherish your liberal arts education. So much of the practice of law is logical, but a lot of it also requires emotional intelligence. In most practices, you have to deal with people. The liberal arts help you understand people.

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.

 
She, woodcut, 23"x31"

Kathleen Gearin '67