New to the Bench: Hon. Theresa Couri

Hon Theresa CouriJudge Theresa Couri has dedicated both her professional and personal life to serving her community. Judge Couri developed her passion for helping others before she was even finished with law school at Loyola University Chicago School of Law. There, she started her legal career as a student attorney working at Chicago Legal Aid. She worked on cases related to poverty, housing, domestic violence and orders for protection. She noted that this experience was an early opportunity for her to learn how to consider the needs of her clients while undertaking complex and challenging litigation work.

After working at Chicago Legal Aid and later the Chicago office of Oppenheimer, Wolff & Donnelly, her marriage brought her to Minnesota. Couri and her husband have four children who also share their mother’s dedication to helping others—two are in medical school and one is in nursing school. Their youngest child is currently a high school senior, and Couri laughingly observed that her and her lawyer husband could end up with another lawyer in the family yet. While her children were growing up, the family regularly dedicated volunteer time to help others. Judge Couri also continues to volunteer with Interfaith Outreach and Community Partners, an organization that serves people facing poverty and food instability.  

In Minnesota, she continued her litigation work at the Minneapolis office of Oppenheimer, Wolff & Donnelly, where she gained litigation experience working with the Attorney General’s Office on implied consent cases in the public safety division. Since she had always been interested in public interest work, she happily accepted when she was offered a job with the Attorney General’s Office as counsel to the Department of Human Services. In that role, she provided advice, litigation defense, and policy development to a wide array of state agencies, including those related to mental health, Medicaid, and Indian and Child Welfare.  

At that point in her career, Judge Couri had two young children at home and a third on the way. When the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office offered her a job that was less than full time, it seemed like a perfect fit that would enable her to balance her roles as a parent and litigator. She worked in adult services/mental health, doing civil commitment work and work related to sex offenders. In 2016, she was promoted to Managing Hennepin County Attorney, managing the adult services/mental health and child support divisions. 

Her transition from litigation attorney to manager of litigation attorneys required her to learn some skills that were not taught in law school, but the wealth of problem-solving skills she had developed in her twenty-five-year litigation career served her well. These skills also aided her transition to the bench, which occurred at a rather tumultuous time in Minneapolis. Not only did she begin her role as a judge while the COVID-19 pandemic was in full force, she was also sworn in on March 8, 2021—the first day of the Derek Chauvin trial. 

While her role as judge was a new direction for her career, she found that her litigation experience prepared her well to manage a courtroom. She was already deeply familiar with evidentiary and procedural rules. According to Couri, the rules of criminal procedure and criminal law generally have the steepest learning curve. In learning a new practice area, she uses the same problem-solving skills she used in her previous roles to develop a formula for solving new problems and finding resources that will help her efficiently manage the cases she presides over. 

Judge Couri said that there is a lot to like about her new job. She enjoys getting to know new lawyers in her courtroom and appreciates learning from other judges. Most of all, she likes seeing success stories in her courtroom. It keeps her going to hear a defendant say, “Thank you Judge, I needed this wake-up call.”

When asked about her judicial role model, Judge Couri did not hesitate to name Senior Judge Karen Asphaug. In her previous work, Judge Couri appeared before Judge Asphaug in a special court that determined the release status of mentally ill and dangerous persons. Judge Couri remarked that Judge Asphaug set a great example for serving as a judge with compassion and balancing care for defendants with concern for public safety, and she strives to model her career after that example.

Judge Couri describes her judicial philosophy as “finding the least intrusive method to keep the community safe and lift the defendant out of a life of crime.” She finds that this relates to the greatest challenge facing judges who handle criminal cases: balancing public goal of reducing the case backlog and treating each case fairly and individually. She notes that the public goals regarding the quick resolution of cases and reduction of case backlogs are legitimate interests, but that cases also sometimes need to be delayed due to a change in defense counsel or because a defendant needs more time to demonstrate their treatment progress. She takes her role as a criminal judge very seriously and sees each defendant as a person, not just a case number. 

Outside of the courtroom, Judge Couri enjoys spending time with her family. Her children now live in four different states as they pursue their educational goals, so she enjoys travelling to see them or spending time together in the family cabin. She makes sure to get good use out of her Minnesota state parks pass and loves exploring the outdoors with her family and dog. 

By Emily Kennedy
Emily Kennedy is a 3L at the University of Minnesota School of Law and Pro Bono Law Clerk at Taft.  

Managing Editor
Elsa Cournoyer

Executive Editor

Joseph Satter