Local Judge's View: Loss of pioneering role models a blow to Duluth legal community
From the column: "Many of us are still struggling to process this loss" of Barb Russ and Judge Sally Tarnowski
On March 6, the Northland’s legal community had a very bad day. Mere hours apart, we learned that both Barb Russ and Judge Sally Tarnowski had passed away. Many of us are still struggling to process this loss. For people like me who knew and worked closely with both of them, the loss is both personal and professional.
Barb Russ spent more than 30 years as an assistant St. Louis County attorney, where she specialized in tax law and economic-development issues. She was my colleague in the Civil Division of that office for six years, about half of those as my supervisor. She took over as a division head following a hotly contested election for county attorney, and her calm competence amid all that turmoil is what I will always remember about our time together in the office. She had a no-nonsense style but also cared deeply about all of us. The depth and breadth of her knowledge as a government lawyer was something very few people will ever equal.
But what I will remember most about Barb Russ the person was that she embodied the idea of “walking the walk.” She was outspoken and unapologetic with her political views, but her actions spoke even louder. She didn’t just care about at-risk children, she became a foster parent. She didn’t just talk about the poor and disadvantaged, she served on a half dozen boards and committees to attack the barriers they face. And she didn’t just hope for some theoretical notion of effective local government. When she retired from her substantial role in county government — which was largely behind the scenes — she ran for Duluth City Council and served on that body for five years. Although her declining health forced her out of public life a few years ago, her life and career will have a lasting impact on everyone she touched.
When Chief Judge Leslie Beiers called me later that day, I assumed she wanted to make sure I had heard about Barb. Instead, I found out that Judge Sally Tarnowski, my colleague on the bench for well over a decade, had died on vacation in Florida.
Sally was not so much a judge as she was a force of nature. All her fellow judges joked about being afraid of her. Most of us were only half-joking when we said it. The sign prominently displayed in her office said it all: “I have flying monkeys, and I’m not afraid to use them.” If an attorney or litigant was trying to put something past her, she would look over the top of her glasses with a glare that could melt steel. Fortunately, I never had it directed at me. Beneath that tough exterior, however, was an extremely warm, funny, and compassionate person.
“Hey, Dale, can I borrow your gorilla costume?” It’s probably not the sort of conversation the public envisions happening in judicial chambers, but it did — and on more than one occasion.
As a judge, Sally was one of those rare people who possessed both tremendous creativity and practicality. When she approached me about her idea of putting all of the Indian Child Welfare Act cases together on a common calendar, I told her it sounded like more work than one person could realistically do. Having covered that calendar a few times over the years, I’m still not sure I was wrong. But Sally pressed forward with the ICWA court, garnering national attention for her innovative approach to child-protection cases involving Native American children. She also started our Mental Health Court in Duluth and revamped how our initial hearings for family-law cases were calendared to maximize opportunity for early settlement.
And she did many of these things while serving as the first female chief judge of our four-county district from 2016 to 2020.
Three years ago when COVID-19 led to an unprecedented shutdown of our physical facilities, Sally led the effort to keep court operations running through virtual hearings.
I am very confident that no one person is going to fill her shoes, and not just because her shoe collection was … extensive.
Both Barb and Sally were gifted attorneys, strong leaders, and pioneering role models for the next generation of women in the legal profession. I was lucky to call both of them colleagues and friends. They will be sorely missed.
Dale Harris of Duluth is a judge in the 6th Judicial District. He wrote this at the invitation of the News Tribune Opinion page.