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Munger retires after 20 years as Duluth judge

Sixth Judicial District Judge Mark Munger sits in his Duluth courtroom on Tuesday. Munger is retiring today after 20 years on the bench. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 7
Judge Mark Munger reminisces about his 20 years on the bench. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 7
Mark Munger's sons Dylan, 14, (right) and Chris, 11, (far right) help their father put on his robe after he was sworn in as a 6th Judicial District Judge in a 1999 ceremony at Denfeld High School. Munger is a Denfeld alumnus. 1999 file / News Tribune3 / 7
Mark Munger sits in a St. Louis County courtroom during his early years as a judge. 2000 file / News Tribune4 / 7
Former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale places a hand on Mark Munger’s shoulder while visiting with him and St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin on Monday. Mondale was in town to attend the swearing-in for Sheriff Ross Litman. Mondale is a longtime friend of the Munger and Litman families. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com5 / 7
Judge Mark Munger presides over the December sentencing of Noah King in the February 2017 shooting death of William Grahek. Munger, who handed down to life sentences in the case, is retiring today after 20 years on the bench. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com6 / 7
Judge Mark Munger tells the story of how he was on his honeymoon when he met St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman on a fishing trip in Canada. Munger, a longtime family friend, administered the oath of office for Litman's fifth term on Monday in his Duluth courtroom, where Litman's late father, Jack, was once chambered as a judge. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com7 / 7

When Mark Munger won the election for a rare open seat on the 6th Judicial District bench in 1998, he didn't come in with great aspirations of public service.

As a trial lawyer of 18 years, Munger had primarily represented plaintiffs in civil lawsuits. He also had 14 years of municipal law and criminal prosecution experience as Proctor city attorney.

Becoming a judge, he thought, would be a chance to do something a little different — a simple job opportunity.

"I was wrong," Munger said recently. "Because after you work at it for probably a month and see the people that come in front of you and the impact you have on every aspect of their life, from adoptions to divorces, you realize you are a public servant and it isn't just a job. It doesn't take very long to figure that out."

The past 20 years, Munger said, have taught him compassion and empathy.

"I hope that's my legacy," he said. "That I learned the job and learned to be a better judge and a better person."

Munger, 64, the longest-serving judge chambered in Duluth, retires today after a 38-year profession in the local legal profession.

A member of a family long known for its political advocacy, fellow attorneys and judges said Munger has made his own impact while advocating for clients and presiding over some of the region's highest-profile cases.

"From his time as a trial lawyer, he knew what it was like to go to bat for someone seeking justice," said St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin said. "Once he became a judge, he also knew how important it was to not only make fair and impartial decisions, but also decisions that were thoughtful, courageous and right. And he was never phased by the fact that the decision might be very difficult. He cared deeply. Justice mattered. We were well-served."

West Duluth roots

Born in St. Paul, Munger was raised in Duluth's Piedmont Heights and graduated from Denfeld High School in 1973.

His uncle, Rep. Willard Munger, was involved in politics as far back as the 1920s and served in the state legislature for more than 40 years. His father, Harry Munger, never held public office but likewise spent decades as a DFL activist.

A graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and William Mitchell College of Law, Mark Munger got his start at the Duluth law firm of his father and Blake McDonald.

"My dad was a great mentor in terms of preparation," he said. "He was a dogged preparer of his cases."

Fred Friedman, who retired in 2014 as Northeastern Minnesota's chief public defender, first met Munger in 1964.

Friedman's father, a labor attorney, had been transferred to the city. Unable to find housing, they strolled into West Duluth's Willard Motel, operated by Munger's uncle. The Mungers were the first people the Friedmans met in the city.

"I saw him grow up, graduate from Denfeld, serve in the Army, go to college and law school," Friedman said. "He's been committed to folks who are without influence and to working folks, whether they were middle class or poor. He's a Duluth native through and through, from a famous Duluth family, and I'm glad he had an opportunity to serve on the bench."

St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman spent close to 10 years working on behalf of Munger's firm as a private investigator before he entered law enforcement.

"Harry was a real taskmaster, and quite honestly he was also an excellent teacher," Litman said. "He taught me a lot of good investigative skills, and Mark did as well. They required you to be thorough. He was a good boss to work for."

Outside the courtroom

Munger has enjoyed close relationships with many fellow elected officials — the Litmans chief among them. For decades, they have made an annual fishing trip to the Litman family camp in Canada, usually joined by former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale.

When Munger married his wife of 40 years, Rene, he was a third-year law student lacking the money to afford a honeymoon. So his father invited him up to the Litman camp.

Mondale, then the sitting vice president, was also there — which meant the Mungers spent much of their honeymoon in a tent surrounded by U.S. Secret Service agents and Ontario Provincial Police officers.

"He's a nice guy and a very good judge," Mondale told the News Tribune this week, adding that his longtime friend is only a "so-so" fisherman. "His dad and I were very close friends and of course I knew Willard very well, so naturally we just ended up going north."

Outside the courtroom, Munger is also a prolific author, currently working on his 11th book. He published his first novel, "The Legacy," in 2000 and takes pride in the five years of research that culminated in "Mr. Environment," his 530-page biography of Willard Munger.

He self-publishes under the Cloquet River Press brand, named for the stream behind his Fredenberg Township residence 20 miles north of downtown Duluth. He loses money on the venture every year but said he hopes others enjoy his works, which he acknowledges often come with some semi-autobiographical elements.

The demands of a district court judge can make it difficult for aspiring authors, but Munger, who has enjoyed writing since his stint as the Denfeld Criterion sports editor, sees it as an important balance in his life.

"5 a.m.," he said. "That's my writing time. People ask, 'How do you do what you do? How do you make the decisions you have to make?' Well how does an oncology nurse deal with what she sees every day? How does a cancer doctor or a priest or a minister deal with a stricken family? We all have things we need to deal with and you have to figure out how to deal with that stress. So 5 a.m. is when I write."

Difficult work

Like all judges, Munger has seen many emotional cases with difficult decisions. But he's also seen tragedy firsthand.

In December 2011, he presided over the Cook County criminal sexual conduct case of Daniel Schlienz. Munger was meeting with the 12 jurors who had just returned a guilty verdict when Schlienz shot trial witness Gregory Thompson and prosecutor Tim Scannell just outside the courtroom.

Seven years later, Munger said it's still "traumatic" to recall the event. Just minutes before gunfire erupted, he had made the decision to allow Schlienz to remain free. The defendant had already served significant time in custody and would've only had about 30 days left, he noted.

"That weights on me," Munger said. "The fact that he could've been in custody, he could've been in the Cook County Jail rather than going out to his car and getting his handgun. You don't know until you're in the middle of it what the response is going to be."

Munger has finished his career with back-to-back first-degree murder trials, imposing life sentences on two defendants in the February 2017 shooting death of UMD student William Grahek.

He isn't able to discuss that crime, as another defendant's case remains pending and appeals are expected. Munger will be back in March to preside over the final trial, after which he may do some part-time work as a senior judge in the state.

In retirement, Munger said he's looking forward to spending more time with his grandchildren, as well as writing, hunting, fishing and skiing. The January retirement date was intentional, coinciding with his 20th anniversary on the bench.

John DeSanto tried many cases in Munger's courtroom during his tenure as St. Louis Couny's chief prosecutor. He went on to work beside Munger as a judge for more than six years.

"I really respect him a lot," said DeSanto, now a senior judge. "He was always a well-prepared jurist. When I tried cases in front of him, he would really be prepared on issues ahead of time. As a colleague judge, he was always very helpful to me, especially in the civil area where I didn't have a lot of experience. He would always be there for me to bounce ideas off and discuss issues."

While the two men fall at opposite ends of the political spectrum, DeSanto said they've maintained a friendly relationship over the decades.

"He has a really great sense of humor. He's always kidding you about something," he said. "And the other side of him — I'm not sure many people are aware of this — but I've always appreciated in the discussions we've had over time that he's very spiritual and he's very caring. I don't know that many people see that side of him."