Zealous Women                 Zelle Hoffman
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Spotlight - Hennepin County District Court Judge Denise Reilly

Posted on Tuesday, October 05, 2010

To view this spotlight in PDF format, please click here.

Interview conducted by Elizabeth Kniffen

I had the pleasure of meeting with Judge Denise Reilly several times over the past few months. In the course of those conversations, her dedication to the law and to her work as a judge was readily apparent. Judge Reilly's strong interest in justice and her passion for learning are what led her to pursue a legal education. Prior to becoming a judge in 1997, Judge Reilly was a law clerk to United States District Judge Robert G. Renner, worked in private practice, and served as an Assistant United States Attorney.

I would like to thank Judge Reilly for taking time out of her busy schedule to share her answers with Zealous Women.


You have had a number of roles in dispute resolution including working in private practice and working as an Assistant United States Attorney. What is the biggest distinction between your role as an advocate and your current role as a judge?

Attorneys in practice advocate for their clients. A judge needs to listen to all sides of a dispute and make decisions based on the law and the facts, but not as an advocate for one party. The point of view is quite different.

Judges are responsible for framing the "fray"¯ but do not act on one side of it. As a judge, I have to vigilantly guard against feeling personally involved in my cases.

What advice would you give a woman graduating from law school regarding the legal profession?

First, I would recommend finding a mentor. Your mentor is not necessarily a person assigned to you by your employer, but someone you really respect and admire.

Second, I would tell new lawyers that if you are miserable in your first legal job, look at other options. There are so many areas of the law and so many ways you can be a part of the legal community. The wide range of the law is what makes the legal profession so exciting. You can be a part of the law in a number of different ways.

How do you think the legal profession has changed for women in the past 25 years?

There are certainly more female attorneys and more female judges today than there were 25 years ago. Women in the Minnesota legal community have taken on leadership roles in private practice and in public service that were nearly non-existent 25 years ago. That said there is still a big disparity in numbers at the senior level. I hope that continues to change as more women rise in seniority.

As a member of the Minnesota Judicial Council, what do you see as the biggest challenge Minnesota courts face in the next 5 years?

The budget is the biggest challenge we are currently facing. In a country that was founded on the Rule of Law, it is imperative that courts be adequately funded. Having said that, courts must find solutions to reduce costs without compromising the functions of the judiciary. For example, in Hennepin County, we are looking at implementing e-filing to improve efficiency and reduce costs. Courts, in conjunction with other justice partners, have also implemented more "payable offenses."¯ A payable offense allows a defendant to pay a fine without making a court appearance.

Minnesota courts must continue to provide access and accountability for the people of Minnesota with fewer resources.

Do you feel judicial selection in Minnesota has become politicized, and if so, has it had a positive or negative impact on the judicial system?

I don't believe in partisan judicial elections. I think most Minnesota judges would agree that partisan judicial elections would not be in the best interests of the state's judiciary. A non-partisan judiciary is particularly important in highly charged political or election cases such as the Al Franken - Norm Coleman election case.

How did your experience on the three-judge panel for the Al Franken - Norm Coleman election case affect your views of the election process and the judiciary's role in that process?

The election case really was the trial of a lifetime. I am so proud to live in Minnesota where we have the highest voter turnout and such dedicated citizen volunteers working as election judges.

I was also impressed with the election process. As judges, we were attempting to answer two questions: what is the law and who received the highest number of legally cast votes? As a panel, we made non-political and unanimous decisions in answer to those questions.

I am proud to live in a country where we can have an important seat open while the election is resolved without a military takeover or a violent outbreak. I was glad to be a part of that process.

What do you find most fulfilling about your job?

I love the courtroom, the people, being able to resolve disputes in an orderly way.