Judge Ackerson’s commitment to justice has served our community well and is a reminder of the impact one person with a big heart can have on the lives of others.
Judge Ackerson has been an influential part of my life, personally and professionally, since before becoming a lawyer. I got to know Judge Ackerson when I was in high school, although he didn’t really know me. He presided over the case of a friend of mine, a case that would eventually impact my decision to become a lawyer and even to run for the legislature. What impressed me the most about Judge Ackerson’s handling of this case was he truly understood as well as appreciated that his ruling would impact a person, not just for that moment, but for the rest of that person’s life. Impacting one life means impacting a family, a neighborhood, and a community.
When you walk into the courthouse in Hibbing, the court calendar for the day is scrolling on electronic screens in the hallway. It’s a list of names and court file numbers. Every case is assigned a file number that is used to call the case before the court and track the case through “the system.” It would be easy to look at the scrolling file numbers and not think much about the many lives woven into that case. After all, there are a lot of mundane tasks that go along with sorting those files from start to finish.
However, the reality is that in district court nearly every decision can impact the trajectory of a person’s life. Whether it’s a crime with a victim, an eviction from an apartment, the dissolution of a business, a custody battle over children, or the division of an estate after a loved one has passed, every court file number is a life. Oftentimes more than one life, even entire families, will be impacted by the decision.
Judge Ackerson both understood and appreciated the gravity of his decisions. He also understood that people come from different walks of life, have different opportunities and face different barriers. He had empathy. Judge Ackerson understood that although not every ruling will change the world, it may change one person’s world.
In Minnesota, judges are elected every six years and have a mandatory retirement age of 70. Unlike state judges, federal judges receive lifetime appointments to the bench without direct accountability to the voters. I’m not necessarily advocating for a change in that regard— but merely pointing out the importance of what it means to make a lifetime appointment. No one is entitled to appointment simply by virtue of their elite education, privileged background, or political connections. Having those things shouldn’t disqualify a person either, but other character traits matter.
Opinions issued by the Supreme Court can not only change a life, a family, a community, they can change the country and even the world. Do those seeking lifetime appointment understand and appreciate the gravity of their decisions? Will they be the independent, third branch of government that we need? Will they be a requisite check and balance on the executive? Do they appreciate that Americans have had different opportunities and faced different barriers? Do they have empathy?
The public is best served when judges appreciate the impact a judicial decision has on individuals, families, and communities. We have been fortunate in Hibbing to have that trait in Judge David Ackerson, a man who genuinely cared about the lives behind the court file numbers. Although mandatory retirement is taking Judge Ackerson off the bench, the impact he has had on our community will outlast a lifetime.