Originally published in the March 2007 issue.
Author: Bradley J. Betlach
In early 2006, just months prior to being appointed to the bench, Judge Kerry Meyer, then an assistant Hennepin County attorney, obtained a guilty verdict in a case involving nine years of father/daughter incest. This was Judge Meyer’s most rewarding trial victory and epitomized for her why she had become a prosecutor in the first place—the sentence brought closure for the victim, now an adult, who had suffered from one of the worst types of crime, had not been believed, and had never had someone stand up for her.
After this experience, Judge Meyer felt ready to apply for a judgeship. She had not applied previously, and she never had to again. Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed her to the bench in August 2006. This was a lifelong dream of Judge Meyer, who “got it into her head” as an eighth grader to be a judge despite the fact that she did not know any attorneys. Judge Meyer attributes her attainment of this goal to her parents, who set high expectations for her, established a moral compass, and fostered a strong work ethic that resulted in her being self-driven from an early age. Fittingly, they held the Bible at her swearing-in ceremony.
Although born in Minneapolis, Judge Meyer spent her childhood in various locations throughout the Midwest, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan as a result of her father’s position as a district manager for Hallmark. She graduated from Alma College on Michigan’s Lower Peninsula with a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Business. Her husband, Daron, owns a window and door company and they have two children, a 12-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son. Judge Meyer is active in the Girl Scouts and her church, and she enjoys quilting and reading “just about anything.”
Judge Meyer attended the University of Minnesota Law School. “Not a fan of law school,” she took a semester off before returning to earn her law degree in December 1990. It was in the practical experience she gained clerking for the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office that she found purpose. Although initially intimidated by lawyers and the courtroom, as a student clerk Judge Meyer was able to gain courtroom experience handling calendars and trying small cases, quickly gaining the confidence she needed to succeed.
Judge Meyer became a permanent clerk in the civil division following law school, and was promoted to assistant county attorney in 1992. She spent five years prosecuting juveniles before moving with her husband, who worked for Cargill at the time, and children to Geneva, Switzerland. After 18 months, the Meyers returned to the Twin Cities and Judge Meyer to the County Attorneys Office. She prosecuted violent, property, and gang-related crimes at various times during her tenure there. Bob Streitz, a senior assistant county attorney, was instrumental in Judge Meyer’s professional development. She worked as a “baby lawyer” for him in both the juvenile and gangs division and, through his able mentoring, learned how to prepare and present cases.
Judges Susan Robiner and Jay Quam were sworn in at the same time as Judge Meyer, and the three of them have bonded, as have other members of the “Pawlenty 8.” Judge Meyer has been assigned a criminal calendar since being sworn in, and has tried seven misdemeanor cases. Although there have not been many surprises given her years of experience as a prosecutor, she describes each trial as a learning experience. In 2007, Judge Meyer will preside over her first rape and murder cases. Judge Kathryn Quaintance, who had a similar background with the County Attorney’s Office, and in fact was Judge Meyer’s supervisor at one time, has been assigned as her mentor. In September 2007, Judge Meyer will begin a two-year term in Family Court.
Judge Meyer’s favorite part of being a judge has been her ability to speak with the defendant—something she was unable to do as a prosecutor. Although she does not believe in lecturing, Judge Meyer does believe that it is incredibly important that the defendant fully understand the proceedings. She is cognizant of the fact that she is presiding over the most important thing in the defendant’s life at the time, and it must therefore be hers as well. Not only does she attempt to ensure that the defendant appreciates what is happening and why, she also strives to craft a response that will keep the defendant out of court in the future. Her most rewarding experiences have been when she has really connected with a defendant and the defendant has understood the sentence and why it was both necessary and fair. So far, Judge Meyer’s least favorite part of being a judge is the feeling that she has been “living out of a bag,” as she travels to her assignments at the suburban courts. She also mourns the loss of her first name, jokingly explaining that she is now simply known as “Judge.”
Judge Meyer believes the biggest challenge presently facing the Hennepin County District Court is turnover, noting that there are 10 relatively new judges on the bench, with at least three more openings in 2007. As a result, she believes it is imperative that the court develop and train new leaders. With respect to the criminal justice system, Judge Meyer sees the greatest challenge to be developing a system to handle defendants with mental health issues. She is encouraged that Judge Richard Hopper now has a mental health calendar and a team to deal with it, but she believes much work remains.
Judge Meyer’s overriding judicial philosophy is “Be Respectful and Earn Respect.” She plans to be prepared for her hearings, and hopes the attorneys appearing before her will be similarly prepared. She also firmly believes that everyone should have an opportunity to be heard, and will take this seriously as a judge. The best advice Judge Meyer has received from a colleague on the bench so far is stunningly simple: “Listen.” Good advice for us all.
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