Originally published in the May 2007 issue.
Author: Sarah J. Gorajski
“Be flexible. Use your law degree to explore all aspects of the law, rather than to allow yourself to be pigeonholed.” Judge Ronald Abrams’ advice to new lawyers has served his own career well. Abrams knew from a young age that he wanted to go to law school and become a judge, but he had to trust the path that would take him there.
Judge Abrams was born in Minneapolis and moved to St. Louis Park when he was 5-years old. Growing up, he was interested in sports and was involved in the Boy Scouts until the ninth grade. He attended the University of Minnesota, where he combined work from the economics, political science, and history departments to complete an interdepartmental studies degree.
After undergraduate studies, Abrams attended Harvard Law School. One of his favorite classes was civil procedure with Prof. Arthur Miller. Abrams and his classmates were so inspired by the professor that many of them took Professor Miller’s copyrights class even though few of them were passionate about the topic.
During both undergraduate studies and law school, Judge Abrams became involved in politics and interned with former U.S. Rep. Bill Frenzel for four summers. Bill Frenzel became Abrams’ life-long political mentor, a person with whom Abrams would consult about every major career decision, including when he decided to run for office years later.
After law school, Abrams returned to Minnesota to work at Briggs and Morgan, P.A., from 1977 to 1980. Abrams enjoyed his time on the East Coast, but he always knew that he wanted to return to Minnesota. “Minnesota’s home,” Abrams explained. After working at Briggs and Morgan for three years, Abrams became an attorney and area manager with Group W. Cable Television in Minneapolis from 1977 to 1980, and a Minnesota House of Representatives Committee Administrator from 1985 to 1986.
In 1988, the Minnesota House District 45A seat opened. Despite his earlier political involvement, Abrams never thought he would run for office. But as he explained, it “was one of those opportunities that presented itself, and I happened to be literally in the right place at the right time.” Abrams was elected and served in the House until 2006.
During his tenure in the House, Abrams was Speaker Pro Tempore from 1999 to 2006, and he chaired the House Tax Committee from 1999 through 2004. He was instrumental in shaping Minnesota’s tax policies, and as his career progressed, he became increasingly interested in higher education. Abrams said, “I am still convinced that higher education and work force development, as well as basic research, is essential for Minnesota to be able to thrive as a state.”
As a representative, Abrams was also involved in the effort that led to the construction of the new Guthrie Theater building, an endeavor that Abrams described as “really satisfying.” Abrams is currently a member of the Tyrone Guthrie Theater Board of Directors, and he now has a view of the dark blue building from his chambers window.
After over 18 years as a Representative, Judge Abrams left the Legislature in 2006 to become a Hennepin County District Court judge. Gov. Pawlenty announced Abrams appointment on April 28, 2006, a day that Abrams will never forget. “It’s not difficult to remember when you’re announced the day after your birthday,” Abrams recounted with a chuckle.
Abrams believes that his time in the Legislature helped prepare him for his role as a judge. As the chair of a major committee, Abrams learned the patience needed to “understand the diversity of opinions.” He explained, “It is very important for that individual who is in the courtroom or before the committee to be heard in a meaningful manner by somebody who is interested in hearing what they have to say.” Abrams also brings a unique perspective to the bench because many of his cases involve issues that the Legislature debated while he was a legislator, particularly in the area of DWIs and domestic abuse.
When asked about the differences between being a judge and a legislator, Abrams responded, “It’s entirely different. As a legislator, you are making the laws that will affect the lives of 5.2 million Minnesotans.” In contrast, as a judge, “You are dealing with legal issues one at a time and affecting people’s lives, particularly in the criminal area, one at a time.”
The best advice Judge Abrams has received since joining the bench is to “Take your time. Thoroughly think things through.” Abrams explained that since he is dealing with individuals’ legal rights, “It is more important to re-read something, to re-think something, and make sure you got it right.” Although Abrams meets his deadlines, he believes that it is “always better to make sure to get [the ruling] right than to get [the order] out fast.”
One of Abrams’ favorite aspects of his new job is the variety of cases that he hears. “I thought it would be intellectually challenging and important work and it has met those expectations, if not exceeded them,” Abrams said. He also admires all the people he has met including the attorneys, court administrators, deputies, and probation officers.
Judge Abrams believes one of the biggest challenges facing the legal profession is access to the legal system. Abrams worries that many people cannot afford the legal services they need to understand the complex issues that affect their rights. In addition, Abrams has observed that more languages are being spoken in the courtrooms, and he is “concerned that people understand what is happening.” Judge Abrams’ advice for the lawyers in his courtroom: “Understand why you are there, and respect each other and the process.”
On Jan. 3, 2007, Judge Abrams experienced “a career highlight” when he swore in the 134 members of the Minnesota House of Representatives. Abrams explained, “There is no more important day in the life of a legislator than the day that you are sworn in. You have your family and friends there, and particularly for the first time, you do not know what to expect. Imagine a 7-year old walking into Disney World for the first time—that is the kind of awe that a freshman legislator has.”
Judge Abrams is married to Dr. Joanne Rogin-Abrams, a neurologist at the Minneapolis Clinic of Neurology. They have two children, Benjamin, 21, and Alexander, 18. Judge Abrams enjoys golfing, traveling, and cooking Chinese and Indian food. He and his wife plan to visit London this spring where their son Benjamin is studying. China is on their list of “probable destinations” for this fall.
When asked how his wife feels about his becoming a judge, Abrams responded, “She has never been happier about a career choice.” Apparently the feeling is mutual as Abrams indicated that he is “grateful for the opportunity to serve” as a judge.