The profession of justice (the kind that makes a difference)

Judge David Ackerson on the bench with Carly Melin’s son Teddy Norenberg, age 2, earlier this year. Submitted photo.

Judge David Ackerson on the bench with Carly Melin’s son Teddy Norenberg, age 2, earlier this year. Submitted photo.

I want to thank all of you judges and lawyers, members of the Range Bar Association, for recognizing my years of service, but more importantly, for all that each of you do as members of the legal profession on the Iron Range. It’s been a privilege for me to be a judge on the Range for the better part of four decades, and it’s very humbling to remember and reflect on this passage of time, it feels like it rushed by in a blur, and I’m left to wonder, “What just happened?”

When I consider us in the legal profession it makes me wonder just what that means, to be a professional. I especially want to thank the four speakers here this evening, each a courageous professional in her own right:

• Dr. Michele Statz, anthropologist of law associated with UMD Medical School, who is currently undertaking a study of rural justice in northeastern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin;

• Rev. Kristin Foster, rostered clergy with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church of Mountain Iron for the 30 year period ending in February of 2018, and my pastor for many of those years;

• Honorable Rachel Delich Sullivan, recently appointed to succeed me as judge of District Court in Hibbing; and

• Carly Melin, attorney, former Minnesota State Representative for the Hibbing-Chisholm area, and currently executive director of the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council.

So what does it mean to be a professional? A professional undertakes extended, specialized study to earn a certification that says they have specialized knowledge and expertise. But there is also the “verb” part of the definition: to make public declaration of one’s knowledge.

It seems to me that how we “profess,” how we communicate our professional knowledge, is the key part of being an effective professional. We must be aware of and transcend the wall of system dynamics and technology that can keep us from effective interaction with those to whom we wish to “profess.”

When you go into a courtroom, you encounter the “bar,” the railing that only lawyers can go through. Then there is the big high bench that the judge sits behind. The people who rely on our professional services are usually at a difficult, troubling time in their lives. It’s all too easy to consider them as cases, or file numbers, rather than real human beings who need quality interaction with us. When we can treat these “non-professionals” as real people, we can become heroes, and often, so can they.

I find the story of “The Wizard of Oz” to be enlightening in this regard. The real hero is a young woman, Dorothy, who leads others in search of justice, including the need of a mind, a heart, courage, and a way home, all the way to the big high wall of the Emerald City. When they get there, she rings the doorbell and a (professional sounding) voice cries out, “Who rang that bell?” She says, “I did.”

The voice says, “Can’t you read the sign?” She says, “What sign?”

Finally then a small door opens and an old man looking much like the Wizard himself looks out, grumbles when he sees no sign, and promptly hangs a sign that says, “Doorbell out of order, please knock.” Dorothy is a hero because she persists, even though the system and technology are being used to keep her away from the justice she seeks. She courageously establishes person-to-person interaction that ultimately leads to transformation and restoration. This is what we professionals who wish to profess justice must strive to accomplish.

Dr. Statz is a professional in academia. Teachers are called “professors.” There was recently a story in the news about an academic woman physicist who was given an award because decades earlier she had made an important discovery that her boss was given credit for. That’s just the way it was.

Pastor Foster started her professional career at the very beginning of when Lutheran women were even allowed to become pastors. That’s just the way it was.

Judge Sullivan is the first District Court judge in the history of Hibbing—the same as Judge Michelle Anderson in Virginia last year. Before them, only men. That’s just the way it was. What she is now facing reminds me of the story of John Henry, the man who raced against a steam engine to lay railroad track down, trying to save the jobs of his fellow workers until his heart broke. Technology and system dynamics have made it increasingly difficult to profess justice in rural Minnesota.

Carly Melin reminds me of a story from Biblical times about how an angel of the Lord appeared to the prophet Habakkuk, who was making stew, and told him to bring the stew to Daniel in the lions’ den. Habakkuk wasn’t sure he liked that idea, so the angel grabbed him by his hair and flew him to the lions’ den to feed Daniel, and then wasted no time in returning him to where he was. (I have often felt myself that I was picked up in that manner and put someplace I never imagined, and how I ever became a judge is itself very improbable.)

When Carly was just in her mid-20s, she suddenly and unexpectedly became a state legislator. That pretty much only happened to men. That’s just the way it was. Now she is involved in politics at the state level with her whole political career in front of her, and who knows what the future holds.

All four of these professional women have spoken of what justice looks like to them in their own life’s journeys. To me they are heroes who teach us how to profess justice. They each connect with people on an individual, relational level, not as “cases.”

I remember once many years ago a reporter asked me what my most important case as a judge had been. I’m not sure where the answer came from, but I think it was a good one. What came out of my mouth was that my most important case will be the very next one I have.

Jim Randall, formerly a Hibbing lawyer and now a retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, and probably the oldest member of the Range Bar Association, had a card printed with the story of the old man and the starfish. As the story goes, a youth encounters an old man walking along the ocean shore after the tide went out, tossing back into the sea one starfish after another that had been swept up on the beach.

“Old man, why are you doing that?” asked the youth. “To save them,” the old man replied. The youth said, “Look at how many there are, you cannot possibly make a difference doing that.” The old man never missed a beat, threw another back and said, “I did to that one.”

The thing to remember is, when we profess justice, we never know what might happen when people have an opportunity for transformation and restoration. They will remember you, they will reflect how you related to them. I remember this one guy, terrible drunk, little guy, wanted to get drunk and fight people, the cops didn’t like him, he was a pain in court, he sure didn’t like me.

Then after many years, many arrests, he was on probation and he started coming to our mental health “court.” He finally got sober and turned things around, and he’s the most delightful guy you ever want to meet; he’s also a great dad and grandfather, someone who loves life and makes a positive difference every day in his own world. He even likes me now.

I remember a woman who grew up in foster care, child protection, family life a disaster, but she hung in there and over many years has become a professional and works wonders in her own family and with others who are troubled, one person at a time.

I remember a woman who struggled with addiction, hung in there; she heard some words where a professional managed to profess justice that she took to heart. She completed recovery and now works in the treatment profession helping others. She is a Native American who has become an acknowledged leader of her people, making a positive difference every day.

I remember these people and, to me, they are heroes. I cannot possibly, in my mind, remember everyone, many thousands, whom I’ve encountered over 36 years as a judge. Not in my mind. But in my heart, yes I can, and these encounters have made me who I am today.

Bob Dylan said it best, way back when he was in his mid-20s. Bob is 8-1/2 years older than me, but we both lived in the sleepy little town of Hibbing in the 1950s, when Bridgeman’s was downtown and Sammy’s Pizza was on the other side of the street. He said, “I Shall Be Released,” 1967:

“They say everything may be replaced Yet every distance is not near So, I remember every face Of every[one] who put me here.”

I think that in my heart I remember every face. I think that in a real sense we become who we are, remembered, revealed, re-cognized. Who we are, who we become, is perhaps in large degree revealed as a composite of every human being with whom we interact in our lifetime. So not only does the professional profess, but those who seek justice also profess in return.

As Victorian poet John Duns Scotus said,

“As kingfishers catch fire, Dragonflies draw flame.

Each mortal thing does one thing And that the same,

Crying: ‘What I do is me, for that I came.’ I say more: the just man justices

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

There can be a wall, but it seems to me that we in the justice profession can transcend the wall that technology and the system can erect, simply by seeing and treating others as human beings. As Dylan said in 1967:

“They say every[one] needs protection, They say every[one] must fall. Yet I swear I see my reflection Somewhere so high above this wall.”

Especially with those who are poor in spirit, who are part of the last, the lost, the least, the littlest, the most vulnerable, we profess justice when our profession is steeped in love.

As said by St. Theresa of Lisieux, God’s justice is clothed in love. This speaks of a love that is borne of grace and mercy and compassion and of kindness. This brings about a justice that is transformative, restorative; the kind that makes a difference.

Technology is not all bad. Systems administration is not all bad. But these tools of themselves cannot bring about the profession of justice. For true justice to be professed, we professionals must treat those we encounter with mercy, compassion, integrity, wisdom and humility. We must treat others with dignity and reverence.

So for me today, as I see myself “replaced”, as I “remember,” as I see my “reflection,” I want to be “released” to keep professing justice, again in the immortally paradoxical words of Dylan:

“I see my light come shining From the west unto the east. Any day now, any day now, I shall be released.”

I thank you all for the privilege of being able to profess justice. Let each of us, each day, be open to, as Dylan says, being released: to an ever greater professing, a profession of justice. Thanks again.

The foregoing were Judge David E. Ackerson’s remarks to the Range Bar Association at his retirement dinner on Sept. 20, 2018. Judge Ackerson retired after 36-1/2 years as a Minnesota trial judge chambered in Hibbing.

Carly Melin of Hibbing is an attorney and former state legislator. Carly was one of the speakers at Judge Ackerson’s retirement celebration and the above were the words she shared that night.

David E. Ackerson bio

David Ackerson is a longtime former Judge of District Court, Sixth Judicial District, Hibbing. He is also a certified spiritual director and a commissioned lay leader of the ELCA Lutheran church where he is a member.

Ackerson is a third generation Iron Ranger, born in 1949 in Hibbing. He attended Hibbing public schools through junior college, then graduated in 1971 from the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul. He graduated from William Mitchell College of Law in 1976 and returned to Hibbing where he practiced law for six years before being appointed as a trial court judge in 1982, chambered in Hibbing. He served in that capacity for 36-1/2 years until he retired in July of 2018.

He and his wife Barbara have six children and six grandchildren. They reside in rural Mountain Iron and are members of Messiah Lutheran Church of Mountain Iron, ELCA, where Ackerson has served since 2010 as a commissioned staff person with the title of spiritual director, minister of faith formation. He has been a certified spiritual director since 2009 when he completed the Shalom Program in Spiritual Direction at the St. Scholastica Monastery in Duluth. He is active in small group ministry on behalf of the Northeastern Minnesota Synod of the ELCA.

In addition to church related activities, Ackerson maintains ties to the legal profession by being available to serve as a Minnesota senior judge and doing private mediation.

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