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New to the Bench: Judge Thomas Sipkins
Marlene Garvis
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
by: Marlene Garvis

Section: Spotlight/Profiles

Judge Thomas Sipkins.

Marlene Garvis, Contributing Author. Ms. Garvis is a partner at Jardine, Logan and O’Brien. She focuses her practice on employment, product liability and healthcare. Garvis is a past president of the HCBA, and an adjunct faculty member of the University of Minnesota School of Nursing and the Hamline University School of Law.

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Transitioning from being a leading attorney at Maslon Edelman Borman and Brand, Tom Sipkins is excited and challenged by the work that he is assuming and the learning that he has to do as a Hennepin County District Court judge. He noted, on his appointment on Jan. 21, 2009, by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, how he hoped “that this is the last, best chapter of my life.” Judge Sipkins brings a wealth of experience in the civil arena to this new role. 


That experience began where he grew up, in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. Sipkins graduated from St. Louis Park High School, where he was president of his class for the 7th to 12th grades. During his high school years, he also had the distinct honor of being the first ball boy for the Minnesota Vikings (which meant coffee and food runs for the referees, as well as cleaning the locker room).  


He left the state to attend Williams College in Massachusetts, where he graduated in 1969 with a B.A. in history. Although he had already been accepted into law school, Judge Sipkins enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he was on active duty for one year as a Russian linguist voice intercept for the Army Security Agency. (He had studied Russian for three years in  high school and four years in college.) He remained in the reserves until 1975.


In 1970, Sipkins entered law school at the University of Minnesota.   During the summer, after his second year in law school, he worked in Washington, D.C., clerking at the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, while living with a cousin who was an attorney for the Democratic National Committee. (He reflected on the fact that during this time, he learned about both sides of the Watergate scandal.)  


Graduating in 1973, Sipkins moved to D.C., where he started his legal career at the U.S. Renegotiation Board. There he specialized in government contracts and Freedom of Information Act litigation. It was as a first-year lawyer for the board that Sipkins second-chaired Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp v. Renegotiation Board. He participated in writing the briefs and appeared with the assistant solicitor general at the oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court. It was also during this employment that he became engaged to his wife, Jessica, a Minnesotan (on New Year’s Eve 1974).  


Returning to Minnesota in 1975, Sipkins’ goal was to learn how to try cases. He was hired by the St. Paul City Attorney’s Office. The then-city attorney, Pierre N. Regnier, has described Sipkins as a very competent attorney and good friend. His initial assignments were the city’s Port Authority, Zoning and Planning Authority, and Civil Rights Commission. He had the opportunity to work with both Regnier and his successor, Harriet Lansing.


Building on his trial experience, Sipkins joined the St. Paul defense firm of Peterson & Popovich in 1977, where he was a partner until 1986. He specialized in school law, employment law, municipal liability, and civil rights litigation; and he handled plaintiff personal injury cases as well. As with his city government position, Sipkins  had significant trial experience. He recalled representing the plaintiff in an employment lawsuit against St. Regis, which he won against now federal judge David Doty.   


Ready for a new challenge, Judge Sipkins moved to the Popham Haik law firm in Minneapolis, where he was a partner from 1986 to 1996. There he specialized in employment and commercial litigation. During his tenure, the firm grew from 90 to 270 attorneys.  Desiring to have a firm of his own, he left with four partners to form Halleland Lewis Nilan Sipkins and Johnson in 1996. At Halleland Lewis, Sipkins chaired the employment law group, and he also handled commercial and mass tort litigation cases. Finally, in 2004, he became a partner at the Maslon firm, where he was a member of the litigation group and chaired the employment law practice. 


Sipkins noted that he wanted to be a judge for a long time, because he “never met a judge who didn’t like the job.” Experienced judges have told him that patience and fairness are two important judicial qualities. He believes that he brings to the bench those qualities as well as his skills as a people-person and a good listener. A major change for Judge Sipkins will be to transition from being a lawyer-advocate to being a neutral. He knows that his role is not to take sides; rather, his job as a trial court judge is to apply the existing law to the facts of each case before him.


While Sipkins’ wealth of experience will make his transition easier for civil cases, this will not occur soon. This is because the first year of his judgeship, as with all new judges, will be spent in the criminal courts, presiding first over misdemeanor and then felony cases.


Sipkins was inspired to attend law school by his grandfather, Charles Sipkins, and his father, Marshall, who did attend law school but dropped out to enlist in the army after Pearl Harbor. That inspiration may also have affected Sipkins’ brothers, Peter and Robert, both of whom are practicing attorneys.  


Married for 34 years, Jessica and Tom Sipkins take great pride in their two daughters, Nicole and Alison. Nicole is married to Brad Koranda, a CPA at McGladry & Pullen. She is a first-grade teacher in Edina, the same school that she attended as a child. Alison works at Youth Frontiers as an executive assistant. Both daughters are graduates of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


Sipkins has been a member of the MSBA, the HCBA, and the Federal Bar Association. He has been selected as a Super Lawyer since 1997 and a Top 40 Employment Lawyer since 2003 by Minnesota Law & Politics.  


In his “spare” time, Judge Sipkins enjoys the Vikings and college basketball and hockey games. Of importance to him is the Edina boys high school hockey team. He is an ardent fan, continuing to attend their games over the years, and he has developed a close relationship with the fathers of several players. In fact, after his appointment to the bench was announced, the fathers had an informal robing event at a pre-game dinner. He prides himself on running a marathon in 1983, still exercises regularly, and plays golf on occasion. An involved community member, Sipkins is on the board of directors of Temple Israel and Camp Warren.


I am confident that the lawyers who appear before Judge Sipkins will find him to be a good listener, responsive to questions, and devoted to becoming more learned in the law. 





1973  J.D., University of Minnesota Law School

1969  B.A., Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts



2004-2009: Attorney and partner, Maslon Edelman Borman and Brand

1996-2004: Attorney and shareholder, Halleland Lewis Nilan Sipkins and Johnson

1986-1996: Attorney and shareholder, Popham Haik Schnobrich Kaufman and Doty

1977-1986: Attorney and partner, Peterson Popovich Knutson and Flynn

1975-1977: City of St. Paul staff attorney

1973-1975: Staff attorney, United States Renegotiation Board, Washington, D.C.

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