A childhood dream comes true for Wadena native
When Michelle Clark was a sixth-grader in Wadena, she was in an omnibus program for gifted students and two career paths held her interest — architecture and the legal system.
She soon discovered she didn't like all the math that was involved with architecture, so the scale tipped to the legal field.
Mark Hansen, who later became a judge, was one of her teachers and as part of his class, he organized a mock trial, with students taking the parts of a judge, lawyers and others in the courtroom.
"It was then that I realized that being a judge can make a positive impact on people's lives," Clark said. "I made a decision this is what I wanted to do — be a judge."
Last week, her childhood dream became real. She is Douglas County's newest judge.
Her journey to a judgeship took a few turns but throughout it all, she remained laser-focused on helping people through the legal system.
"Tenacious — that's how my mom described me," she said.
After high school, Clark attended St. Cloud State University and majored in criminal justice studies. After that, she attended the University of Minnesota and enrolled in the university's Indian Child Welfare Act Clinic, a four-credit program that focused on the child protection system for American Indians.
After graduating from law school, Clark became a clerk for Judge Tom Stringer in Otter Tail County, who became her role model.
"He saw himself as a teacher and would explain things to me — what works and what doesn't," she said.
Later, she joined the Tillett, McCarten, Johnson and Haseman law firm in Alexandria, and focused her attention on family law and township issues.
"I really enjoyed that," Clark said. "I liked the client contact."
When Douglas County Attorney Chad Larson was elected and one of his assistant attorneys left, it created an opening and Clark applied for and got the job. She handled gross misdemeanor and felony cases.
Clark said that those in the local legal system have been extremely helpful. She said she could get insights or advice from colleagues, even those in other offices. Tom Reif, Mike Dolan, John Lervick and Scott Johnston are just a few of the attorneys she has contacted over the years.
"This has been such a wonderful community to work in," she said. "All the people are so thoughtful and helpful. Everyone's door is always open."
She served as assistant county attorney from April 2011 until Gov. Mark Dayton appointed her to fill the position of long-time judge Ann Carrott, who retired earlier this month.
What are the traits of a good judge? Clark said it starts with having a depth of legal knowledge, but there's more to the job than that.
"A good judicial temperament requires patience and understanding," she said. "You have to be willing to listen to people. Judges really are there to serve the public."
For many people, they are appearing in court at the worst time in their lives, Clark said.
"They need someone there who listens so they know they've been heard before a decision is made."
When people think about court, they think immediately about criminals. But judges preside over a wide spectrum of cases — custody suits, adoptions, small claims court, medical malpractice, juvenile cases, child protection, landlord/tenant disputes, the "whole gamut," Clark said. "So many people don't realize how much our courts do."
Making the change from prosecutor to judge will be an adjustment, Clark said, but it is something she's had in her sights since those childhood days growing up in Wadena.
"I am so looking forward to being in the courtroom serving Douglas County and the entire Seventh District," she said.