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Duluth courthouse sees first Black judge sworn in

Judge Shawn L. Pearson became the first Black judge in the Sixth Judicial District in Duluth on Friday.

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Flanked by family members, including his wife and their three children, new Sixth Judicial District Judge Shawn L. Pearson, right, shakes hands with U.S. District Judge Michael J. Lewis, of Minneapolis, upon Pearson's swearing-in and becoming the local court's first Black judge Friday in Duluth. (Brady Slater / bslater@duluthnews.com)
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A courtroom full of friends, family members and legal colleagues witnessed local history Friday when attorney Shawn L. Pearson was sworn-in, becoming the first Black judge on the Sixth Judicial District bench in Duluth.

The 46-year-old Pearson swore his oath to U.S. District Judge Michael J. Davis, of Minneapolis.

"I recognize the importance of being the first Black judge appointed to Minnesota's Sixth Judicial District," Pearson later said. "But it won't mean much if I'm the only one."

Pearson replaces former Judge Shaun Floerke, who stepped down earlier this year to pursue leadership of a local charitable foundation. Pearson joins 15 other judges in the district. He was appointed by Gov. Tim Walz in May .

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New Sixth Judicial District Judge Shawn L. Pearson, right, embraces U.S. District Judge Michael J. Davis, of Minneapolis, upon Pearson's swearing-in and becoming the local court's first Black judge Friday in Duluth. Pearson's spouse, Katharine Kline, is in the background. (Brady Slater / bslater@duluthnews.com)

"This is a historic occasion," Walz said in a statement Friday. "Not only is Judge Pearson experienced in the law with a deep commitment to fairness, but his appointment will help ensure our criminal justice system better reflects the communities it serves."

Pearson grew up poor in Appalachian Ohio to a single mother. He never met his dad, he told the crowd, and noted that statistically speaking, he wasn't supposed to have landed on the bench.

"Growing up poor," Pearson said, "I learned what government cheese tasted like."

As an attorney, Pearson frequently represented parents in cases involving child protection. During his introductory speech, Pearson spoke about being racially profiled and confronted by police multiple times as a younger man.

"Walking while Black; driving while Black; cooking in my kitchen late at night while Black," he said of profiled scenarios.

A member of the board of directors for the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial that marks the city's 101-year-old lynchings of three innocent Black men, Pearson's speech included a social justice refrain. He called on himself and new judicial colleagues to have a role in reducing the disproportionate outcomes that would see African Americans make up 8% of probation cases locally, despite making up 2% of the population, and 15% of Indigenous people making up probation rolls compared to their being 4% of the population.
"You're the first to look like many of our disenfranchised folks," Dan Lew, chief public defender, said in opening remarks.

Pearson stood up for democracy, calling the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 an existential threat to the country. He said the legitimacy of the courts is of paramount importance to upholding democracy, and that when members of the community feel left out it undermines everything.

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"It pains me to hear it," the new judge said of when minority folks tell him they don't feel welcome in the courthouse, or like anything good happens in a courtroom.

"That perception reflects an unsettling reality," Pearson said after donning the robe. "In the Sixth Judicial District, people of color are overrepresented in our jails and probation populations, but virtually absent from the rest of the justice system. And with my appointment, it is my hope that this community will see that change is not only possible, but it is happening right now."

This story was updated at 7:15 p.m., Friday, July 16, to correct the name of the U.S. District Judge. The News Tribune regrets the error.

Related Topics: CRIME AND COURTSDULUTH
Brady Slater is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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