'Impossible to fill her shoes': Colleagues remember Duluth Judge Sally Tarnowski
"She saw the humanity in my clients in a way very few people can," one public defender told the News Tribune.
DULUTH — Sally Tarnowski had a reputation as a no-nonsense judge, never losing command of her courtroom and possessing an ability to bring participants to order with so much as a stern look.
But those who spent time with Tarnowski over her 16 years on the bench came to appreciate the person behind the black robe — someone who always lent an ear to those most in need and was truly committed to improving lives, even if it meant breaking with traditional court practices.
“As a passionate defense attorney, I often disagreed with her rulings in my cases,” public defender Veronica Surges said. “At the same time, I deeply respected her because I could tell how much she cared about the people in my courtroom — especially my most mentally ill clients. Underneath her tough exterior she was one of the nicest, most compassionate, and most patient people I have ever met.”
Fellow judges, court staff and attorneys were still in shock Tuesday, struggling to come to terms with Tarnowski's sudden death a day earlier while vacationing in Florida. The cause could not be officially confirmed by a Minnesota Judicial Branch spokesman or Florida authorities.
Tarnowski, 63, had presided over her signature South St. Louis County Mental Health Court just last Friday.
“Her legacy here at the courthouse is just huge,” St. Louis County Attorney Kim Maki said. “She was involved in so many things, and she was such a caring person to the people that the courts and our office deal with. It will be impossible to fill her shoes.”
Tarnowski’s judicial tenure was marked by a number of groundbreaking initiatives, including the establishment of the mental health court early in her career. The program combined the court’s supervisory powers with services such as treatment to keep many defendants from going to prison or reentering the criminal justice system.
Chief Public Defender Dan Lew was an original member of that team and also worked with Tarnowski to establish the Community Integration Court, where he said they “found alternatives to the endless jailing of those unsheltered in our downtown.”
“We soon saw her tremendous courage for those who are the most hurt: those in mental health crisis, unsheltered, and unloved by too many,” he said. “Soon after Sally piloted the state’s first mental health court and we can now see those beautiful faces in our community who are now job coaches, substance use counselors, managers, small business owners, fathers and mothers — all living better lives.”
Tarnowski, who served a four-year stint as 6th Judicial District chief judge, also presided over the Indian Child Welfare Court at the Duluth courthouse, incorporating tribes and seeking to offer a more culturally sensitive experience to Native Americans families moving through the justice system.
“One of the things that people note most about her is her ability to reach people where they're at, and to listen to them when they have something to say,” Maki said. “She would listen to the family trauma that they experienced and special circumstances that applied to different families. I know that she was very, very well respected by a lot of the families who went through her court.”
The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa issued a statement reading: "Her contributions to establishing the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) Courtroom in St. Louis County, which was emulated in courtrooms across the area, will always be a tremendous accomplishment. Her continued support for the equality of Native American families was unheralded and a massive loss for the 6th Judicial District."
Surges said she received a call early Tuesday from a client who had been sentenced to prison by Tarnowski. He was weeping and hoping his attorney could tell him the news wasn’t true.
Of Tarnowski’s intimidating presence, the public defender said she always told her clients: "She'll scare you, but don't worry. She scares me, too. She can smell lies a mile away, so just be honest and you'll be fine."
“We once had an extremely difficult hearing in juvenile court,” Surges recalled. “I wept the entire time. Not only did she not shame me for crying in her courtroom, but when the hearing ended, I realized she was crying, too. She saw the humanity in my clients in a way very few people can. Nobody can fill the hole she leaves on the bench and one of my greatest regrets is that I never told her how much I appreciate her.”
Others attorneys echoed that sentiment, regretting the things that were left unsaid as a result of her abrupt death. One, who asked not to be named, credited the judge with literally saving an attorney’s life in court one day, ordering him to a hospital, over his objections, for treatment of what was ultimately identified as a heart attack.
Lew said Tarnowski had privately discussed retiring in 2025. Her work wasn’t quite complete, as she planned to soon roll out what is being described as “mental health court lite” — a program serving those with low-level charges who are under commitment, are not committable or simply have fallen through the cracks of the system.
That court, which was to launch this summer, was at least partially aimed at addressing chronic, quality-of-life crimes in downtown Duluth by working with those who are the subject of repeated police calls and citations.
“With tears and hope, we will see this through, Sally,” Lew promised.
The St. Louis County Board honored two longtime courthouse leaders in a moment of silence before a Tuesday meeting. Barb Russ, a retired longtime assistant county attorney and Duluth city councilor, also died Monday .
Tarnowski had two adult children, Katie and Ben, with ex-husband Greg Tarnowski. Services are pending.