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Three posters hang in Judge Patrick D. Robben’s office in the Hennepin County Government Center. The first, a mural in the Kansas State Capitol of abolitionist John Brown, tells of Robben’s Kansas roots and his days as a student intern in the Kansas Legislature. The second depicts a Civil War scene. It is a reproduction of a painting in a reception room in the office of the Minnesota governor, where Robben acted as general counsel to Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
And the third poster, between the abolitionist and the scenes of war? It shows President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley shaking hands at a meeting in the White House in 1970, when Elvis asked to become a federal agent and presented the president with a Colt .45 pistol. The other two show Robben’s history, but that one’s just for fun. “It combines political history, kitsch, and popular culture, and that’s what I like about it,” Robben said.
Robben and his posters moved from an office in the State Capitol in January 2011, a month after he was appointed as a Hennepin County judge by his former boss, Governor Pawlenty. Robben had thought about being a judge since his days as a law clerk at the Minnesota Supreme Court, and he was eager to take on the role of decision maker. “I like the tangible aspect of it. You can argue about each case, but at the end of the day, there has to be an outcome,” he said. “You are helping people solve their problems—although they may not like the solution.”
Robben's appointment to the bench came after a lengthy screening process. In contrast, when Pawlenty asked Robben in 2009 to serve as his general counsel, the position “came out of the blue.” But it was an opportunity Robben knew he couldn’t pass up. “You are kind of a witness to history, working on things that were on the six o’clock news every day,” he said.
The governor’s general counsel is responsible for handling all internal legal matters for the Office of the Governor. Accordingly, Robben had to review executive orders, deal with data practices act requests and document retention policies, analyze legislation, supervise the line-item veto process, work with the attorney general as the governor’s liaison with respect to high-profile litigation, and advise the governor’s office staff with respect to ethical issues—among other things. Versatility was a necessary quality for the position, since the office of general counsel had a staff of only one: Robben himself. “It was a lot of after-hours stuff,” he said.
His general counsel role led Robben to be involved in the process of—and later, the dispute over—Pawlenty’s use of the executive’s “unallotment” power to balance the budget in 2009. Robben led the legal effort to implement the historic $2.7 billion unallotment of state government spending, and he represented the governor in the legal proceedings that followed, after the scope of the governor’s authority to use the unallotment process to balance the budget was challenged. The unallotment process was “very intense.” As Robben said, “No governor had ever done anything quite of that magnitude before.”
Robben was also involved in preparing the election certificate in the challenged 2008 Minnesota Senate election. On June 30, 2009, nearly eight months after the election, the Minnesota Supreme Court rejected the long-running legal challenge of Norm Coleman and ordered that Al Franken be certified the winner of the race. After the Court’s decision was issued, Robben had to help finalize the election certificate, arrange for the governor to sign it, obtain the countersignature of the secretary of state, and send it off to Washington, D.C., for delivery at the office of the Secretary of the Senate the following day. That night, Fox 9 news opened with a shot of Robben walking down the secretary of state’s office hallway, with the paperwork to be signed. “It was strange to think about the historical significance of the document I was drafting and carrying around that day,” Robben stated.
Before becoming general counsel, Robben practiced as a commercial litigator at several Twin Cities firms: first at Briggs & Morgan, then for seven years at Rider Bennett, and finally for two years at Morrison, Fenske & Sund.
At Rider Bennett, Robben had a broad-based commercial practice, with an emphasis on cases involving noncompete agreements and trade secret misappropriations. He was also on the “SWAT team” of attorneys who responded to temporary restraining orders and preliminary injunctions—which led to his involvement in high-pressure situations in several high-profile cases. He became a partner at Rider Bennett in 2005.
When Rider Bennett dissolved in 2007, Robben moved to Morrison, Fenske & Sund in Minnetonka, a smaller firm with around 15 attorneys. There, he concentrated on real estate title defense work, which gave him a disconcertingly first-hand look at the housing bubble. He also worked on business and shareholder disputes and intellectual property cases. While at the firm, he had the opportunity to become very familiar with a courtroom setting—he tried four different cases, including winning a case before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. “It was a great bunch of people, and a lot of great courtroom experience,” he said.
After graduating magna cum laude from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1998, Robben started his legal career at the Minnesota Supreme Court. There, he spent a year as a law clerk for the Hon. Joan Ericksen (now a judge for the U.S. District Court, District of Minnesota), and he began thinking about being a judge himself, someday. Robben said the experience at the Supreme Court was unmatchable. “You get to see the whole variety of legal issues, and you have the luxury of being able to work very hard on your writing,” he said.
Robben grew up in Kansas, north of Wichita—or “smack in the middle of the state,” as he says. He attended Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, for his undergraduate degree. After graduating he was drawn north to Minnesota for law school, and the move became permanent. “I met a girl from Fargo, and that was that,” he said. Marya Robben, who was then another law student at the University of Minnesota, is now a trust and estate lawyer at the Minneapolis law firm Lindquist & Vennum and an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. The couple live in Minnetonka and have two children.
Before he became a judge, Robben sat on the Minnetonka Park Board for two years. He enjoyed the position but had to resign when he joined the bench. He was also involved in the Minnesota Defense Lawyers Association for nearly a decade.
After working in all three branches of government—the legislative branch as a student in Kansas, the judicial branch as Justice Ericksen’s law clerk, and the executive branch as Governor Pawlenty’s general counsel—Robben is pleased to be back in the judicial fold. As a new judge, he starts with the “serious traffic” calendar, where he will stay for a couple of years before transferring to a juvenile or family court calendar. Now, Robben may have up to 30 misdemeanor-level pretrial hearings and 40 to 50 arraignments in one day. Having to handle that volume of cases has been a challenge, he said. “It gives you a lot of respect for all the people who work in the system,” he added.
In his time so far on the job, the best part has been knowing that his decisions have real, immediate, and tangible effects on people’s lives. “Many of the people coming into my courtroom on the misdemeanor DWI calendar know they’ve made a mistake and they want to make a change in their lives—the courtroom experience and sentencing components hopefully give them the tools to do just that,” he said.