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Transition to the Bench

Judge WahiJudge Richelle M. Wahi was appointed to the First Judicial District bench on February 26, 2016. Here she answers some questions from the MSBA about her experiences so far.

1.            Why did you want to be a judge?

I am often asked, “did you always want to become a judge?”  The answer is no.  Growing up, I did not know any judges or lawyers.  My parents were immigrants to this country.  I was the first in my family to pursue graduate school and the first lawyer in the family.   Before my appointment, I served as a pro bono conciliation court referee in Dakota County.  I will never forget my first day on the bench.  It was extremely powerful as I was able to use my law degree and years of practicing complex civil litigation to serve my community.  It was right then that I knew that I wanted to dedicate my legal career to serving my community as a judge.

2.            What have you found the most challenging part of the job so far?

Sentencing is by far the most challenging part of the job.   I preside over cases where individuals broke the law and, often times, there are victims that will forever be scarred by that decision.  I approach sentencing hearings with kindness, compassion and empathy for all involved – the victims, their families and friends and the defendant.  It is very humbling to sit in judgment of another person.  I very much appreciate that my sentencing decisions will affect not only an individual’s civil liberties, but the lives of the victims and their families and our society as a whole. 

3.            What are the biggest differences between what you thought being a judge would be like when you were an attorney and what it actually involves day-to-day?

Judges do not have nearly the time I thought they had to research and write decisions.  The bottom line is that I am working more than when I was in private practice.  Judges are on the bench most of the day.  Preparing for calendars, researching and writing decisions happen before and after normal courtroom hours.  

4.            What advice would you give to attorneys who appear in front of you in district court?

Be prepared.  Know the rules, the law and the facts of your case.  Use that knowledge to educate the judge on the critical facts and law that apply.  Finally, treat everyone in the courtroom with dignity and respect; including court staff, court clerks, opposing attorneys and the parties.  

5.            What are the most pressing needs that you see as a judge?

Courts continue to see large numbers of self-represented litigants; in most cases because individuals cannot afford or access legal counsel.  Many times self-represented individuals also face cultural, language and socioeconomic barriers that can pose additional burdens.  I would like to see the courts and justice partners continue to diversify as I believe it is key to better understanding and improving the challenges that present in many of the self-represented cases.

6.            What are you looking forward to in your new position?

I am looking forward to using my law degree and years of practicing complex civil litigation to serve the people of the First Judicial District and the State of Minnesota.

7.            What kind of training do new judges receive?

In the First Judicial District, new judges shadow other judges for three weeks.  I observed senior judges preside over criminal, family and civil matters.  In addition, new judges meet with justice partners and divisions of District Court Administration to better understand each role in the administration of justice. Each new judge is also assigned a mentor judge.  Statewide, all judges attend New Judge Orientation, which is a weeklong seminar addressing various substantive and procedural areas of the law.  Finally, new judges attend Bridging the Gap sessions, which occur periodically in the first few years after appointment.