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A retiring judge's view: People make the courts and the memories

After 18 years on the district court bench and as retirement looms, many are asking what I will remember most about the job. Easy answer: the people.

Recently, I officiated at a courthouse wedding. The bride’s father told me I “saved his life” 15 years ago. He told me his name and then said I ordered him into treatment. He’s been in recovery ever since the sentencing. I didn’t save him. He saved himself. He now has a picture of the two of us.

I’ll remember hundreds of people asking for restraining orders to protect them from their alleged abusers. The overwhelming majority was women but many also were asking for protection on behalf of their children. I’ve seen bruises and scars on these people.

There were social workers who insisted I complete an adoption on a child-protection case I worked on for about five years. The 13-year-old’s adoption was finished about two weeks ago. Knowing what this young man has gone through made me excited to meet his new family.

Seeing both a defendant’s and his victims’ family members cry when I sentenced him to a lengthy prison term was not one of the best memories, but it is something that will stay with me. No matter what others may say and what crime a person pleads guilty to, it can be difficult to look someone in the eye and say, “You are committed to the commissioner of corrections.”

A young man who I dealt with in the Juvenile Court for about four years recently stopped by with his mother to show me his most recent report card. A 4.0 GPA is something to be very proud of, and I was pleased he wanted to show me.

A groom at another wedding told me I had represented him two times when I was an attorney and then sentenced him two times as a judge. Not what anyone might call a success story, but really, it is. That’s because the man hasn’t been in court for any new offenses in over five years.

I’ll also remember the people who were injured as a result of an accident and ended up in a jury trial. Even though there were injuries, there wasn’t proof that the named defendants were at fault. This was the court system and proof is a requirement. I’ll remember both parties because it showed the system worked.

A woman stopped me in the frozen-food section at a local grocery store in the past year to thank me for helping her adult son get treatment. He relapsed but is in recovery again. A judge doesn’t always hear what happens “after the fact.”

I’ll always be thankful for the dozens of court administration staff who work hard every day to serve the public. They will be in my thoughts because I know no judge could do his or her job without them.

In my time on the bench, I always tried to remember the people who were in front of me for a variety of court cases. Whether you appeared for a name change, had a real estate title problem, were ordered to pay child support or spousal maintenance or allegedly committed a crime, a judge has to remember you are the most important person in the courtroom. Thank you.

Heather Sweetland is retiring as 6th Judicial District judge in the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth.