Mary Steenson DuFresne (Mary Steenson at time of publication).
Originally published in the March 1997 issue.
Author: Charles E. Lundberg
Mary E. Steenson comes to Hennepin County District Court with an range of legal experience that is as deep as it is wide. Rarely has a new Hennepin County judge brought to the bench such extensive expertise in both the civil and criminal arenas.
For the past 13 years, Mary has been a trial lawyer with the firm of Bassford, Lockhart, Truesdell & Briggs, P.A., handling a wide variety of professional liability, employment, and other civil cases in the state and federal courts. She is one of only a few women who have been certified as a civil trial specialist and inducted into the Academy of Certified Trial Lawyers of Minnesota.
Mary’s civil trial experience follows substantial experience as a criminal lawyer. For several years before she joined the Bassford firm, Mary was an assistant state public defender for the state of Minnesota, arguing cases before the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Mary was born in Champaign, Ill., and lived in Whitefish Bay, Wis., and Brantford, Ontario, for several years before her family settled in Milwaukee. She went to college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where she graduated in 1967 with a degree in English. She then worked for several years as a writer-editor for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and as an administrative assistant for Westinghouse Learning Corporation. After starting a family, Mary entered William Mitchell College of Law in 1975. She graduated cum laude in 1979.
During law school, Mary worked as a law clerk for C. Paul Jones in the Minnesota Public Defender’s Office and started as a lawyer in that office upon graduation in 1979. Paul Jones has nothing but praise for Mary’s work at the public defender’s office. "Mary was one of the most reliable lawyers I have ever worked with. She was always prepared, took on any legal task that had to be done, and always did superb work with a smile and an outgoing personality," Jones said." The public in general and the lawyers in Hennepin County are very fortunate to have such a quality person on the bench."
During her years as an appellate public defender, Mary also taught law school, leading the criminal Appeals Clinic at William Mitchell. During that time, the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines were established, and the small public defender’s office handled thousands of resentencing hearings of inmates incarcerated in the state’s correction facilities. Mary interviewed inmates at the prisons and handled parole revocation hearings.
In 1983, Mary joined the Bassford firm and started working exclusively in the civil trial arena. She became a partner in 1988. She has tried all types of cases, with a primary emphasis in professional liability and employment law. She has had a special interest in sexual harassment law, having successfully tried several harassment cases to verdict.
Mary has served on several committees and in other capacities during her years of practice, including the Hennepin County Bar Association Ethics and Diversity Committees. She is a member of Minnesota Women Lawyers, the Douglas Amdahl Inn of Court, and the Academy of Certified Trial Lawyers of Minnesota.
Mary is very proud of her children – Molly (25), Andy(22), and Ben (19). Molly lives in San Francisco where she works as a producer for the Internet. Andy and Ben attend college in the Twin Cities.
A couple of years ago, Mary began thinking about the possibility of a judicial role. She was attracted to the opportunity to provide public service in the law, and believed that her trial experience and background in both civil and criminal law qualified her to be a judge.
Mary’s campaign in the 1996 primary and general elections was well received by the community. The Star Tribune lauded her candidacy: "Steenson’s intellectual power and her familiarity with complex civil litigation could prove indispensable to the court." Running a countywide election campaign is a daunting task; Mary learned how difficult it is to reach the voters in this most populated county. She won the election decisively, however, defeating the incumbent judge 56 percent to 44 percent.
Her partners and associates at the Bassford firm have decidedly mixed feelings about Mary’s election to the bench. They hate to lose a partner of Mary’s considerable talents and will miss the daily contact with a good friend and comrade. On the other hand, as trial lawyers, they are pleased to see such a formidable lawyer join the Hennepin County court – even if they will likely never be able to appear before her themselves.
Greer Lockhart, Mary’s senior partner, put it this way: "Mary is an outstanding trial lawyer. She is very bright, but she does not carry the burden of a big ego, and she is thoughtful and considerate of everyone. We are sorry to lose her, but the community is gaining an outstanding judge." Lynn Truesdell, another of Mary’s partners, echoed those sentiments: "Mary brings to the bench that indispensable combination of courtesy, good humor, and intellect so characteristic of, and so much respected in, the very best judges. We let her go reluctantly but confidently. We will miss her. Our law firm’s loss is Hennepin County’s considerable gain."
Mary’s election has been well received by her new colleagues on the Hennepin County bench. Judge Pamela Alexander predicted that Mary "will be a fabulous judge. She is extremely well qualified." Judge Robert Schiefelbein made the point a little differently, comparing Mary with the late Judge Susanne Sedgwick, the first woman ever to serve on the Hennepin County District Court. "I think Mary is a worthy successor to Sue Sedgwick, whom we all admired and who was a great judge." Judge Schiefelbein – who is himself retiring from office this year – arranged for Mary to be sworn in to office in Judge Sedgwick’s judicial robes. Judge Steenson’s response to this touching gesture was characteristic of her approach to her new role: "I just hope I can prove myself worthy of this significant honor."