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A life sentence of retirement

Seventh District Judge Sally Ireland Robertson is looking ahead to retirement after serving 22 years on the bench. Robertson was appointed a judicial officer in 1996 by Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson. Brian Hansel/Pioneer Journal

Sally Ireland Robertson is moving on with her life.

The 69-year-old grandmother is bowing to the state's mandatory retirement provision for judges and is leaving her Seventh District job after 22 years on the bench.

"Basically I have felt very good," Robertson said as she sat inside the Wadena County courtroom last Wednesday after hearing cases. "It's drawn on every talent I have."

Robertson was appointed to be a judicial officer in the 10-county Seventh District by Arne Carlson when he served as Minnesota's governor. At the time Robertson was chosen for the honor there were only three other women serving in the district as judges.

"I've really enjoyed the job, I've really been grateful for it, I think it is a meaningful, complicated, interesting and smothered in humanity and I really like that," Robertson said. "This job makes you grateful because you see the very difficult circumstances that so many people have. It makes you appreciate your parents and makes you appreciate the life you were given."

A wee bit of Irish luck has been in Robertson's pocket during her life. She grew up in Ohio with what she calls a great set of parents and was part of a wonderful family, entered law school at a time when the Feminist Movement in the United States was opening important career opportunities for women and for the 15 years prior to her judgeship, served as a lawyer in the Wadena firm of Kennedy and Nervig.

In her 22 years as a judge, Robertson never faced an opponent in an election.

"That's been huge because it's a major undertaking to have an election campaign," Robertson said.

Robertson can remember her Feb. 2 interview with Gov. Carlson in 1996 very well because it was officially 60 below zero in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. On Valentine's Day of that month, she went from being a lawyer to a judge.

Leading up to her appointment Robertson went through a merit selection process, rounded up letters of recommendation and underwent a check of her ethics history.

An election process between two candidates for a judicial position gives the voters a chance to oust a sitting judge. Dealing with highly-emotional situations, passing judgment and sentencing defendants to long terms of incarceration can work against a judge on the bench.

"We always say that half the people you deal with usually go out unhappy," Robertson said.

There is only one strong card for a judge to play, but there are no guarantees it will be a trump card.

"I do think that the biggest thing that even people who lose want to feel is that they've been heard and that you were clearly trying to be fair," Robertson said. "Sometimes I tell them, especially in conciliation (small claims) court, be appreciative of the fact that you can come in here, you can tell your side, they can tell their side, you can show me things that you think would be persuasive for your side, and they can do the same, and you can get a decision - you don't have to fight over it as you'd have to in many countries in the modern world."

Robertson said she has come to believe the American tradition of due process is responsible for the peaceful society it has.

The range of cases Robertson has tried has been huge. Some have been petty, others have been tragic and horrible.

One of her first cases concerned two roommates who were fighting over ownership of some "Precious Moments" figurines.

Robertson recalls the worst case she presided over involved the murder of a Long Prairie family. Two men murdered a woman and her two teenage children for no apparent reason at all. Both men were sentenced to prison. One hung himself two weeks after being incarcerated. The other is still in the prison system without parole.

Robertson's job has kept her very busy, but she has also done her share of traveling. She wanted to teach when she left Denison University in 1970, so she earned a Masters Degree in English from Miami-Ohio in 1972. She met her husband, Jamie, at Miami University and the couple headed for the southwestern United States so Jamie could attend graduate school and Sally could teach. After putting in one year of teaching at an Arizona secondary school it was discovered that the law would be Robertson's best career path. She went after a law degree at the University of New Mexico, where 40 percent of the law class were women, and received it in 1979. During this time the Robertsons lived in Barcelona, Spain for a year. From the southwestern United States, they moved to South Dakota when Jamie got a job as director on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Sally got a job in legal services.

"And then, after 10 years of marriage and two kids he told me he had always wanted a small farm, and you can't buy a small farm in South Dakota, so we just edged a little farther over and came to Minnesota," Robertson laughed.

The Robertsons have called Minnesota home for the last 37 years. Robertson did not have to step down until July, but living in Minnesota has given her insight into how nice the months of May, June and July can be.

Robertson's husband has been very active in retirement, but she is planning a "wait and see" approach to her new lifestyle.

"We have some projects we want to do, and we are going to do a little traveling," Robertson said. "A lot of people have cautioned me not to just jump into things."

Robertson sees a need to improve the mental health system and is interested in being a companion for a young person through the kinship program or being a foster grandparent.

"Those are the things I think would be kind of fun, but I am going to take the advice I got, which is to do the things you have got to get done for yourself," she said.