New to the Bench: Hon. Kristin Siegesmund
Monday, July 01, 2013
by: Joy R. Anderson
Hon. Kristin Siegesmund
Ms. Anderson is an associate at Gray Plant Mooty in the Business & General Litigation Group. Her litigation practice covers a wide variety of subject matters, including trademarks, financial services, and trusts and estates.
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Hon. Kristin Siegesmund
1980 J.D., with honors, University of Michigan Law School
1974 B.A., with honors, Brown University
1993-2012 Managing/Supervising Attorney, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid
1989-1993 Staff attorney, Minnesota Disability Law Center
1983-1989 Commercial litigator, Faegre Baker Daniels, LLP
1980-1983 Staff attorney, United States Department of Justice, Antitrust Division
Judge Kristin Siegesmund’s father was a tax attorney, not a criminal lawyer. But during the 1967 Detroit riot—five days of rioting during which 43 people were killed and more than 2,000 buildings were destroyed—he drove every day from the safety of the suburbs where their family lived to the downtown jail. He wanted to help represent some of the thousands of people arrested in the riot.
“He believed every one of those people deserved a lawyer. Those kind of events really shaped my beliefs,” said Siegesmund. “People who felt disenfranchised burned their own houses to the ground because their voices were not heard.” Those feelings of disenfranchisement, Siegesmund believes, may be remedied through the courts: “Our court system must be on the forefront of giving voice to people.”
That is part of the reason that Siegesmund, who has devoted the last 24 years to working at the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, is now a new Hennepin County District Court judge. “We need to step up,” she said. “My dad did as much as he could, and that’s why I’m here—I’m stepping up.”
Appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton, Siegesmund took the bench in January 2013. She believes the breadth of her experience—the U.S. Department of Justice, at a large private law firm, and in various positions at Legal Aid—will be an asset to her as a judge. “I have had to look at issues from many different perspectives, in many different areas of law,” she said. That experience, she believes, gives her the ability to think about legal issues from a wider perspective to help find a just result. “When you have a better understanding of what’s driving the problem, you understand that there might be other solutions to the problem.”
Siegesmund attended Brown University, where she received a degree in biology, and the University of Michigan Law School. Her first job after graduating with honors in 1980 was as a staff attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division. She was immediately placed in the group of more than 50 attorneys preparing for the trial of United States v. AT&T, the antitrust case that ultimately led to AT&T—then the sole provider of telephone service throughout most of the country—being broken up into eight smaller companies. She spent nine months in trial and was able to cross-examine some AT&T vice presidents before the trial was put on hold for settlement discussions.
The Department of Justice didn’t want to break up its trial staff if settlement talks failed, so Siegesmund was sent on a temporary assignment to Minneapolis. There, among other cases, she worked on a gun smuggling case that made case law in the Eighth Circuit, in which she obtained a conviction against a man who tried to smuggle guns and ammunition onto an airplane headed for Nigeria.
Siegesmund liked Minneapolis, the opportunities for outdoor recreation (she loves to ride her bicycle, hike, and kayak), and what she saw as a balanced perspective about work and family among the legal community. Those experiences stuck with her when she returned to Washington, D.C. and the Antitrust Division’s Transportation Section, where she ran a grand jury investigation in Florida for four months.
Deciding she wanted a change from prosecution work, Siegesmund began looking for a job in private practice. Remembering her positive experience on temporary assignment in Minneapolis, she accepted a position as a business litigation associate with Faegre & Benson (now Faegre Baker Daniels) in 1983. During her six years with the firm, she worked on a wide variety of commercial litigation. “Each week was different; I really loved that,” she said. She also had the opportunity to hone her courtroom skills on small cases involving collections or car repossessions.
Although she gained valuable experience at Faegre & Benson, Siegesmund knew that eventually she wanted a job doing public interest work. “The cases I worked on there were intellectually interesting, but I didn’t find they were issues I cared deeply about.”
In 1989, she began working for the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis (now Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, after a merger in 2012 with St. Cloud and Willmar-area affiliates). She initially expected to spend just a few years with Legal Aid. Instead, she ended up working there for 24 years in a variety of positions. Siegesmund loved the collaborative atmosphere among the Legal Aid attorneys and the sense that her work was making a concrete difference in her clients’ lives. At times, she felt the legal system did not take her clients’ concerns seriously because they did not know how to navigate the system. “A lot of times what we could do for people at Legal Aid was to listen to them,” she said. “That was really, really important to people—it gave them dignity.”
Her first job for Legal Aid was with the Minnesota Disability Law Center. For four years, she worked as a statewide advocate for children in special education with developmental disabilities. Much of her work focused on ensuring that children with disabilities were kept in the least restrictive environment possible—a practice now called “mainstreaming.”
Siegesmund next moved to the Legal Aid Housing Unit, representing low-income tenants in court and working on policy issues to benefit tenants. Later, with the Legal Aid Housing Discrimination Law Project, Siegesmund worked on numerous sexual harassment cases for women who were coerced by their landlords into trading sex for rent. They were difficult cases, with little evidence available beyond the victims’ testimony. Convincing the court that testimony was credible could prove an uphill battle. “A lot of the women were people with very difficult life stories and criminal histories.” But landlord sexual harassment was a serious problem that Siegesmund believed had to be addressed, and her team won numerous victories in the area.
Her most recent position at Legal Aid was as supervisor of the Consumer and Tax Units, overseeing attorneys who assisted clients dealing with issues including mortgage foreclosures and debt collection. She was on the front lines for the collapse of the housing market and saw numerous cases of predatory lending and equity stripping.
Although Siegesmund loved her work at Legal Aid, when the opportunity arose to join the bench, she decided—in her own terms—to “step up.” She began her tenure on the bench by hearing misdemeanors. Even with her broad background in different areas of law, the job presented a steep learning curve. “It’s been kind of like learning a foreign language,” she said. “The first few weeks I was in the courtroom, I struggled to understand what they were saying.”
But Siegesmund is learning that language, and she believes that being on the bench will allow her to make certain that everyone’s stories get to be heard, whatever the outcome of their case. “What became very clear in my time at Legal Aid was that there are a significant group of people whose voices are not heard,” she said. “One of the things I thought I could bring to the bench was to make sure they at least have an opportunity to tell their stories.”
Siegesmund also has been active in community activities during her time in the Twin Cities. She taught legal writing to first year law students at William Mitchell College of Law for several years. As a longtime resident of St. Louis Park, she has volunteered with the St. Louis Park school system and served as chair of the St. Louis Park Human Rights Commission, that advises the city council on issues relating to human rights. She is also a former member of the Governor’s Advisory Council for Technology for Persons with Disabilities.