Appointed to the bench at age 39, Judge Shaun Floerke said he always intended to step down before reaching the state's mandatory retirement age of 70.

But, until a few weeks ago, he never thought he'd be hanging up the robe at the end of this year.

Floerke, 55, said it was a "cosmic connection" that led him to the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation, where he was named president and CEO on Tuesday.

"It's a hard work," he said of the judiciary. "It's hard to stay creative. I think I've done that well; I would defend what I've done to date. I don't know if I could do that when I'm 60, 65, 70 — so I knew there would be a transition at some point."

An unconventional pick to lead one of the region's largest nonprofits, Floerke said he was immediately energized by the possibilities after he was persuaded to seek the post by Community Foundation Board Chair David Kropid and Dan Lew, the region's chief public defender who also serves on the board.

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A judge since 2004, and the founder of the South St. Louis County DWI Court, Floerke hopes to draw on his judicial experience as he takes over the reins from David Montgomery, who has led the organization on an interim basis since the retirement of longtime president and CEO Holly Sampson.

Judge Shaun Floerke (File / News Tribune)
Judge Shaun Floerke (File / News Tribune)

"I've learned over the years that when you treat people with respect, you get respect back," Floerke said. "I think a lot of folks in my position demand respect first, and maybe or maybe don't get respect.

"And what I've found is that a courtroom is a place of trauma. Hurt people hurt people. You have lots of folks with hard background sand we're dealing with tough stuff, so I've learned how to make my place a place of respect, dignity and safety."

Floerke will step into the role Jan. 11. He has notified Gov. Tim Walz that he intends to retire from the bench Jan. 1, creating a vacancy to be filled at the Duluth courthouse once a temporary hiring freeze ends.

Floerke was appointed to the bench by Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2004 and has been elected or reelected by voters three times. During his tenure, the DWI Court has earned national recognition for its efforts to treat addiction and reduce recidivism, and Floerke has been called upon to provide training for courts and criminal justice organizations throughout the country.

The district's chief judge from 2012-16, Floerke also helped establish the South St. Louis County Safe Babies Court and the Duluth Domestic Violence Restorative Circles Process, and he serves as a member of the National Judicial Opioid Task Force and the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, among other leadership positions.

Floerke previously worked in the St. Louis County Attorney's Office and the Steele County Attorney’s Office in Owatonna, Minnesota, as well as in private practice. A native of southern Wisconsin, he earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin and a law degree from the University of Minnesota.

He lives in the Lincoln Park neighborhood with his wife, Sara. They have five children, all in their teens or 20s.

Floerke said he's satisfied with his accomplishments on the bench and views the role of nonprofit leader as one where he can deal with issues "upstream" — before they reach a courtroom.

Chief Judge Shaun Floerke meets with the South St. Louis County DWI Court team at the Duluth courthouse in April 2015. (File / News Tribune)
Chief Judge Shaun Floerke meets with the South St. Louis County DWI Court team at the Duluth courthouse in April 2015. (File / News Tribune)

“My vision and effort always go into pulling together teams of folks who are willing to roll up their sleeves and do the work to address challenging problems on the ground,” he said. “This position gives me a new opportunity to work with others to address those issues.”

Kropid, the board chair, described Floerke has "humble, respectful and deeply concerned about this community."

“We needed the right leader to direct this community institution,” he said in a statement. “We have found that leader in Shaun. He has had significant impact on our courts and our community, creating innovations and reforms that have improved and saved lives."

Montgomery, the former city administrator, will return to his role on the board after helping Floerke through a transition process.

“We could not have taken the time to find the right person to lead this community institution without Dave’s willingness to take the helm for the last six months,” Kropid said. “He has not only continued to lead but also has worked with the staff to make important changes that have strengthened this organization and positioned it for greater success.”

The Community Foundation was founded in 1983 and has since distributed more than $60 million in grants and scholarships and established more than 430 funds. The foundation provides grants to other nonprofits for college scholarships, among other initiatives in the 10-county region of Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin.

It's major initiatives include Operation Rising, a project aimed at narrowing the opportunity gap been rich and poor children in the Twin Ports; a regional response to health and economic crises posed by the COVID-19 pandemic; a 2012 Duluth flood response initiative; and Speak Your Peace: The Civility Project, which seeks to encourage civic engagement through constructive discourse.

Floerke said the announcement raised a few eyebrows in the legal community, including from former chief public defender Fred Friedman, who texted him: "Justice will miss you."

The judge disagreed with that characterization.

"Justice doesn't live in a courthouse, and I'm not leaving justice," Floerke said. "Everything this foundation does is about justice in our community."

This story was updated at 3:42 p.m. Dec. 1 with additional comments from a news conference. It was originally posted at 10:48 a.m. Dec. 1.