New to the Bench: Hon. Pamela G. Alexander
Monday, July 1, 2013
by: Andrew Deutsch
Hon. Pamela G. Alexander
Mr. Deutsch is an insurance coverage attorney with Meagher & Geer. He defends insurers and insurance agents on matters involving all types of insurance policies.
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Hon. Pamela G. Alexander.
1977 J.D., University of Minnesota Law School
1974 B.A., Augsburg College
2013 Re-appointed to the Hennepin County District Court
2008 President of the Council on Crime and Justice
1998 Appointed Presiding Judge of the Hennepin County District Court Juvenile Division
1996 Elected Assistant Chief Judge of the Hennepin County District Court
1986 Appointed to the Hennepin County District Court
1983 Appointed to the Hennepin County Municipal Court
1980 Attorney, office of the Hennepin County Attorney—Criminal Division
1978 Attorney, Legal Rights Center
1977 Trust Administrator, First Bank
1974 Law Clerk, Neighborhood Justice Center and the Legal Rights Center
When Judge Pamela G. Alexander was under consideration for appointment to the Hennepin County bench, she was in a unique position with 25 years’ prior experience as a judge. “The big question,” Alexander said, “was, ‘Why do you want to go back?’” Her answer: “It’s the best job ever.” For Alexander, it is a joy that “the law is ever changing,” because it means we can “keep ourselves poised to always have a thirst for knowledge.”
Alexander’s response conveys her passion, which likely played a role in her reappointment. It also did not hurt that Alexander has the qualifications and experience of an exemplary jurist and committed civic leader. Alexander has deep roots in the community as a third-generation resident of South Minneapolis. She graduated in 1974 from Augsburg College and from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1977. After spending a short time in Washington D.C., Alexander returned to start her career as a trust administrator for First Bank (now U.S. Bank). In 1978, Alexander became an attorney at the Legal Rights Center, where she had clerked during law school. In 1980, she became the first black female lawyer in the office of the Hennpin County Attorney.
Alexander’s judicial tenure began on the Municipal Court in 1983. When she was first named to the bench, Alexander was the youngest judge ever appointed to a Minnesota court and the first black female judge in Hennepin County. Alexander became District Court judge when the bench was unified in 1986. She had judicial rotations in the criminal, civil, family, and juvenile divisions, and heard appeals as part of the Municipal Court’s three-judge appellate panels. She served as assistant chief judge from 1996 to 1998 and has chaired numerous judicial committees and task forces.
Throughout her career, Alexander has been recognized as a leading voice on issues of racial disparities and gender equality. She has received more than 50 honors and awards, including the NAACP Profiles in Courage Award and the 2011 Woman of Courage Award from the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation. In addition, she taught as an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas Law School and the William Mitchell College of Law. She and her husband have also raised two daughters.
When she left the bench in 2008, Alexander never thought she would be back. Having become a judge at a young age, she wondered what else she might have an interest in. She found her opportunity as the president of the Council on Crime and Justice, addressing the causes and consequences of crime and violence through community organizing, research, and advocacy. The position was rewarding, giving Alexander an opportunity to talk about issues she could not address as a judge, and to find solutions to collateral consequences of crime that arise outside the scope of the legal system. She mentioned her work on racial disparity issues, reforming the expungement process, and efforts to “ban the box” by prohibiting employers from considering a job applicant’s criminal history until the applicant has had an interview or is offered a job. The latter became the law for private employers this year, following a 2009 change for public employers.
But Alexander’s role as president also required numerous day-to-day tasks of running a business. That meant funding a non-profit, meeting budgets, and dealing with management issues. “People don’t realize how tough the work is,” Alexander said. She credits that aspect of her work for giving her a deep appreciation for the dedication of staff and administrators.
Although her time with the Council on Crime and Justice brought her outside the judicial branch, Alexander still maintained contact with lawyers and the legal system. She believed then and now that the legal profession is a helping one, filled with people who care about their clients and a system of justice. Alexander marveled at the pro bono hours provided by attorneys in private practice. Having seen firsthand the commitment from those in the Volunteer Lawyers Network, Alexander called it “heartwarming to see the work given” by lawyers, including the “legal work on civil issues no one knows about.” She also noted the dedication and hard work that prosecutors and public defenders provied, oftentimes without much support.
Ultimately, Alexander learned some things about herself while running a non-profit. “I like lawyers,” she said. And “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” In the end, it was an easy decision to come back to the bench.
With a laugh, Alexander said she is one of the newest judges but also one of the most senior judges. She sees herself as being in a position to educate the public and elected officials about the legal system, how it fits together, and why it works. She also enjoys being able to mentor her interns and law clerks. She keeps in touch with past clerks, and takes an active interest in their careers.
With her experience and perspective, Alexander said she believes all judges need two things. First, have empathy and compassion for the people who come before the court. Second, remember that “justice isn’t for some; it’s for everyone.” That includes protecting constitutional rights. It also means making hard choices, and sometimes taking a position that is not popular.
Alexander knows what it is like to make hard decisions. In 1990, she ruled in State v. Russell that the sentencing guidelines disparities for crimes involving crack cocaine and powder cocaine were impermissibly race-based and violated the state’s constitution. On appeal, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed her ruling.
Alexander didn't know that the case would become a defining issue, but in 1994, she was nominated to a federal judgeship. For two years she waited, sometimes traveling to Washington D.C. for meetings with Justice Department officials, and having frequent interviews with FBI agents. In the end, politics derailed the nomination. Supporters of the war on drugs and critics of her nomination painted Alexander as a controversial “activist judge.” Alexander felt vindicated in 2007 when the U.S. Sentencing Commission retroactively reduced sentences for those convicted of federal crack-cocaine offenses.
The nomination process “made me smarter and stronger,” she said, “but I don’t recommend it for a lot of people.”
Thirty years after being first appointed, Alexander joked that she might have a few more gray hairs, but she could not be happier to be back. “I am a trial judge,” she said, adding that she loves the job because she gets to meet and interact with all types of people. “We see all the humanity that comes in here. And we solve people’s problems.”
Alexander hopes to finish her career on the bench doing what she loves, working with her colleagues and lawyers, and helping children and families. She currently serves on the criminal division, but Alexander especially looks forward to returning to the juvenile division, where she had been the presiding judge. Alexander noted that juvenile court is great because it is “a treatment court to help kids and families, instead of just punishment.”
Alexander’s goals for her return to the bench are many. She intends to keep mentoring her law clerks and others, informing citizens about the judicial branch, and embracing technology in the courtroom. She also looks forward to fostering the type of collegial atmosphere that she remembers fondly from her prior days on the bench. Collegiality is important to Alexander. “Spend a lot of time getting to know your colleagues,” she advises, “Not just on the bench, but also those appearing before the bench.” She might not have realized it before, but “you can be a judge and get along with lawyers, too.”