2023 Excellence Awards: Hon. Denise Reilly

The Honorable Denise Reilly (Minnesota Court of Appeals) was chosen for the Excellence Award for Career Contributions to the Profession. Reilly has been a champion of children in the justice system throughout her career. As a district court judge, she was a presiding judge of juvenile court and helped overhaul the juvenile protection system. She has continued her work with children as an active member of the Children’s Justice Initiative Advisory Committee.   

What has been a meaningful moment in your career?

As I reflect on my 40-year legal career, I feel like I am one of the luckiest lawyers in the state.  My first job was as a law clerk to U.S. District Court Judge Robert Renner. I couldn’t have had a better start to my life as a lawyer, spending two years learning from an exceptional judge and human being. Next, I worked at a private law firm (Lindquist & Vennum now Ballard Spahr), before joining the U.S. Attorney’s Office. In 1997, Governor Carlson appointed me to the Hennepin County District Court, where I presided over all kinds of cases: criminal first- degree murder, careless driving, civil multi-million-dollar business disputes, name changes, and juvenile cases. In 2009, the Minnesota Supreme Court asked me and two other wonderful judges, Elizabeth Hayden and Kurt Marben, to try the Coleman-Franken senate contest case. That certainly was a meaningful highlight. But the moments that are among the most meaningful are the child protection cases where I hopefully made decisions that changed the trajectory of the lives of those children and their families.

What is one piece of advice/wisdom you’d like to share with members of the legal community?

I have been the happy recipient of fabulous mentorship  from Judge Renner and former Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, Robert Sheran. I tell young lawyers to look around and observe more experienced lawyers, and I ask them to ask themselves (?) what qualities they admire in those lawyers. They should figure out who they want to be like when they “grow up.” Then they should hitch their wagon to those lawyers in order to learn and grow. And I urge more experienced lawyers to befriend and mentor younger lawyers. We are lucky in Minnesota because we have so many fine lawyers and judges who are committed to helping younger lawyers.

Who is a legal hero/mentor to you?
I’ve already mentioned Judge Renner and Robert Sheran, and there are many others. But since I tried my first case with Bob Sheran, I am going to focus on him. I was a newer associate at Lindquist & Vennum when I helped him try a case on behalf of the Board on Judicial Standards. I was so naïve and he was so humble. I did not know, until after the case was tried and argued to the Minnesota Supreme Court, that he had been Chief Justice of that Court!

When we argued pretrial motions, Bob had me argue them. After we finished, we were walking back to our offices, and I asked him if he had any suggestions for me. He first complimented me on how I handled certain motions, then he suggested that next time I might want to approach a particular type of motion in a different way. I will always remember what a gentle and good teacher he was.

Another Bob Sheran moment that I remember was when I knocked on his corner office door to ask him a question about a case. He said, “Come in.”  I opened the door and he was sitting with his chair turned to look out the window. He swiveled his chair and looked at me. I asked if I was interrupting and when he said, “no,” I asked him what he was doing. He said he was “thinking.”

He taught me to take time to sit and think about the issues that require it. It seems to me that lawyers are often so busy “doing” that they don’t make time for quiet reflection.

How would you like to see the legal profession or our local legal community change?

I think that our noble profession is a servant profession. I think many people go to law school because they want to make a difference.

As a judge, I saw so many unmet legal needs. Impoverished people qualified for public legal services, like public defenders and pro bono lawyers. But there are a lot of people who are poor, who don’t qualify and can’t afford legal representation. I call them the low bono litigants. They need good legal representation, too.

As a district court judge, I had a mental list of lawyers I could call on to help with some of these low bono litigants. I remember such a case when I was presiding over the felony property/drug court calendar. A woman had been charged with a serious felony property crime. She was poor but didn’t qualify for a public defender. I called Richard Kyle while I was sitting on the bench—this is before he was appointed to the Ramsey County District Court—and explained the woman’s predicament to him. He immediately agreed that he would talk with her and try to help. I have many more examples of lawyers stepping up when called upon.

So, in response to the question, I would like to see a deepening and widening involvement of more lawyers doing pro bono and low bono work.

What are your plans for retirement?

I plan to travel, starting next week when my husband and I are going with our four grandsons and their parents to Custer State Park and the Grand Tetons! 

I love my work, but I also love lots of other things, and especially, people. I plan to spend more time with those people, along with traveling, gardening, reading, and walking. And I hope to spend some time as a senior judge.
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Elsa Cournoyer

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Joseph Satter