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Life behind the bench

Instilling hope a crucial part of the legal process, says district court judge

Sally Robertson, of Wadena, has been a district court judge since 1996. Robertson’s current term expires in 2023, but she will retire before then.    Contributed photo

Sally Robertson, of Wadena, has been a district court judge since 1996. Robertson’s current term expires in 2023, but she will retire before then. Contributed photo

District Court Judge Sally Robertson believes that one of the most important aspects of her work on the bench is helping people find hope. Robertson is a rural Wadena resident, and former lawyer for a Wadena law firm, who has served Minnesota’s 7th Judicial District since 1996.

Minnesota has excellent continuing education for judges, according to Judge Robertson. She recalled that a Brandeis University law professor, who spoke at a continuing education conference some years, ago asked the assembled judges what the most important part of their job was. The judges answered what you would hope — and expect: justice, truth, fairness, etc.

“He said it is to give people hope,” Robertson recalled. “If you don’t have hope you can’t change and people without hope are going to keep doing what they’ve done before.”

Judge Robertson said that she’s thought about what that professor said many times as people have appeared before her in courtrooms across the district.

“I have to hold people accountable but also help them find a way to be better in the future,” she said. “When you look at my job overall it’s a very sad job, but there is also the feeling that if we judges manage to do the right thing we can create hope for people. I think that is our biggest challenge.”

The sadness can be heart breaking and emotionally exhausting as people carrying the burden of society’s most intractable problems on their shoulders and in their hearts step before a judge’s bench in a steady stream year after year. Disputed inheritances, domestic disputes, orders for protection, children emotionally and physically damaged by their parents, conciliation court, contentious civil cases, and even gruesome and senseless murders have all been heard by Judge Robertson over the years. From courtrooms in Alexandria, Fergus Falls, Wadena, Long Prairie and elsewhere in the sprawling Seventh District she’s worked to hold people accountable, find justice, and provide a ray of hope.

Robertson is acutely aware of the low-income status of many of the people in the areas where she has served. For many low-income people small run-ins with the law can be devastating and create a sense of hopelessness, she said.

“For example, what for us is a little case, like convicting someone of driving after the revocation of their driver’s license, means that they get a pretty standard fine of $290,” she said. “For them, getting that driving after revocation fine can be the ticket to the big black hole. In these rural areas it is nearly impossible to get a job and hold it without a driver’s license.”

Robertson tries to show the person appearing in front of her that there is a way back out of the despair they may be feeling. She helps them make a plan to get their license back.

“I say to them, I know you don’t have the money, but you can work on the Community Work Service Crew for $8 an hour and pay it off,” she said. “I say this may sound like a big burden, but if you don’t get out of the black hole it can just keep getting deeper and deeper. This way you actually can get your license back.”

Robertson takes the other aspects of her job very seriously, also.

“I think our judges have about three or four main jobs. One is, of course, to know the law as well as you can, but it’s constantly changing. You need help from lawyers and your law clerk to keep up. We also go to continuing education sessions, she said.”

A judge should be observant and be a good listener as well, Robertson believes. She has to know who is in her courtroom, what’s being said, and what is going on. After more than two decades on the bench, listening and observing from the judge’s bench has become akin to breathing for her. It wasn’t always that way.

“Your first day on the job is nerve-wracking,” she said of that day 21 years ago. “You realize that even though as a lawyer you’ve admired the judge and noticed what they are doing, you don’t really notice it from their perspective. You’re used to being on the lawyers’ side of the bench. There’s so much to learn about the practicalities of the job at the very beginning that those first few days are very anxiety producing. You need to know how the record needs to be kept, how to call a case number first, to see who is there, and to announce what stage of the case you are at. You need to learn who the attorneys are and more.”

Being a judge in the late 1990s was a demanding job. Today it’s become more so, according to Judge Robertson.

“One of the things that’s changed since I became a judge is that the calendars have become so packed,” she said. “It’s not like you have a few cases today and a few tomorrow. We are busy all day long. Every judge – according to statistics – handles over 4,000 cases a year. Some may be smaller cases where you just sign an order but that’s how many we handle. There just weren’t that many when I started.”

Compounding the heavy case load is a shortage of judges in some places. Fergus Falls, where Robertson hears court three days per month, has three judges. It should have four.

“It can be very difficult, and you get so worn out by the end of the day,” she said. “One time I went to Fergus Falls, and they had scheduled five orders for protection in 45 minutes. It didn’t turn out to be that bad because some of the cases went away, but I thought I would have to go in there and say, make it quick folks because each side has five minutes and that’s it. That’s a terrible way to feel when you’re going into these cases where something horrific may happen.”

Robertson said the need for judges is a big issue in Minnesota. Stearns County, for example, is short two judges and a recently appointed judge in the 9th District, in rural northern Minnesota, goes to five different counties.

To attempt to manage the workload carried by Minnesota’s judges the courts have turned to statistics and computers. The statistics are an effort at quantifying what judges do.

“The state has gone to a very sophisticated and strong court administration system,” Robertson said. “They have a weighted case load which says this kind of a case gets so much weight. For example, child protection cases have a lot of case load weight because they require a lot of time and they usually go on for months. Civil cases may also be time consuming, but they often settle so they have may have less weight.”

Robertson said that it is caseload numbers and weight that determine the number of judges needed in a given county.

I have to hold people accountable but also help them find a way to be better in the future. – Sally Robertson

State Court Administration also analyzes how long it takes an average child protection, divorce, or driving after revocation case to be closed. They have established guidelines for each type of case.

“If you don’t get them done in that time either you or your court administrator has to explain why you didn’t,” Judge Robertson said. “But the guidelines are more goals than demands because it is understood that each case is different.”

In recent years, in an effort to create a paperless court, the use of computers has expanded from the back offices of court administration to the judge’s bench during hearings and trials. Robertson has found that the computers detract from her ability to be fully observant of what is going on in her courtroom.

“I know they’re trying to modernize and to save money, but the files on the computer occupy multiple screens, and it’s challenging to move between the numerous screens while you’re conducting court,” she said. “The computer becomes the interface between you and the people that you’re listening to.”

As she works to accommodate digital technology and carry an increasingly heavy case load judge Robertson continues to focus on her ideal of holding people accountable and, when possible, offer them hope.

“In addition to instilling hope I think peacemaking is important to a judge’s work,” she said. “I tell people all the time that even if you’re disappointed with my decision you’ve had a chance to be heard. You had a safe process, and this is how we resolve things in our society. We don’t shoot people or blow up people that we have differences with. It’s a huge thing to give people a chance to be heard and to keep the peace. I like it that I’m a peacemaker at heart.”

Following her 1996 appointment Judge Sally Ireland Robertson was elected without opposition in 1998, re-elected without opposition in 2004, 2010 and 2016. Her current term expires in January 2023. Minnesota has a mandatory retirement age of 70 so Robertson will retire before her term expires.

Editor’s Note: Sr. Perspective does not feature elected officials who are eligible for re-election. Since Robertson will turn 70 before her term expires and will face mandatory retirement, the story is allowable in the Sr. Perspective.

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