Originally published in the May 2009 issue.
Author: Jason Tarasek
No one could figure out why he was always so dirty. Without fail, the young child was just filthy every morning he arrived at Head Start, an extra-curricular program for low-income children. His behavior was dreadful; he frequently bit other children. Most of the teachers simply assumed that he never bathed. Then they figured it out: this young African American in the 1960s South lived in a house with dirt floors. No personal-hygiene regimen would help him avoid the dirt in his house. It was inevitable, therefore, that he would be dirty each morning when he arrived for the Head Start program. So the Head Start teachers simply arranged for the youngster to change into clean clothes each morning. The resulting transformation was unexpected. “His entire personality changed,” said Jane Ranum, who was one of those Head Start teachers, noting that the child—once clean—gained self-confidence, transformed his behavior, and stopped biting other children. It was a lesson that Ranum would never forget. “If you understand what causes something and the behavior behind it, you’re better able to deal with it.”
Ranum, who was recently elected to the Hennepin County bench, was born and raised in Davidson, N.C., and came of age during the turbulent civil-rights era. As a witness to the growing pains of a nation, Ranum developed the ethos that would guide her life.
A fast-walking bundle of energy, Ranum followed in the footsteps of her mother, who—also a schoolteacher—sought the peaceful integration of schools in the South. During her first year as a teacher at a “middle-class white school,” a federal desegregation order forced Durham County, N.C., to begin educating kids of all races together. Ranum was amazed by the inequality that separated black schools from white schools. “I saw firsthand the difference in facilities—the difference in books and things.” Recently, thinking back on those challenging times, she observed that the struggles “left an indelible mark on me.”
Ranum recognizes that her experiences as a teacher prepared her for life as a legislator and, now, as a judge. As a teacher, she worked with her colleagues, parents, and students in a joint effort to “come together to focus on children.”
After her first year of teaching, Ranum left North Carolina to travel in Europe. Before she knew it, she had a job offer that would change her life. While teaching on a U.S. military base in Germany, she met the man who would become her husband. Thirty-seven years ago, she returned with him to his home state, Minnesota, where she knew precisely one person: him. Ranum taught for four more years in Minnesota but after watching her husband graduate from law school, she decided to make a career change, too. “If he could do it, I could do it,” she said.
After she passed the bar in 1979, she didn’t know what to do next. After all, she was pregnant. So, for the next two years, Ranum worked part-time out of her home on family-law matters.
Later, Ranum clerked for the Hon. William S. Posten of Hennepin County and, in 1982, joined the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, where she would serve as a criminal prosecutor for more than 25 years. Around the same time, she also began volunteering for her local schools—a task that soon led her to lobby the Minnesota Legislature on issues related to women and children. Eventually, she played a leading role in successfully obtaining the passage of a citywide school referendum. Before she knew it, her friends and colleagues began encouraging her to run for office. At first, she said, “no.”
Insisting that “it never crossed my mind” to run for office, Ranum said she just kept doing things that she loved. “I never had a plan. [My career] just evolved as I kept doing what I thought was best. You always have to follow your passion. My passion was for healthy families and children.”
Ranum was elected to the first of five terms in the Minnesota Senate in 1991. Serving portions of south Minneapolis and some neighboring suburbs, she focused upon legislation aimed at keeping women and children safe.
During her time in the Legislature, she served as chair of various high-profile committees. She does not anticipate that her role as judge will be much different than her experience chairing committees in which she always guaranteed that “both sides would have their say.”
In her experience, Ranum said that even people who lose at trial typically are content so long as they feel that they were treated fairly. “Most people want to believe they had an opportunity to be heard by a neutral person with an open mind.”
Her experience as a teacher, legislator, and criminal prosecutor will inform her decision-making on the bench. At the county attorney’s office, Ranum served as a senior attorney on the drug prosecution team responsible for felony cases. Earlier in her career with the prosecutor’s office, she worked with the Child Support Enforcement Division and the juvenile court with responsibility for child-protection and juvenile-delinquency cases.
Her experiences have allowed her to acquire “an understanding of the complexity of domestic-violence issues” and issues of child abuse and neglect. “When I think of what I did as a teacher,” she said, “I saw it from a child’s point of view ... and I’ve also seen it from the standpoint of an attorney. People who have not dealt with issues like these do not understand the dynamics.”
Among her goals as a judge will be to protect kids before they become criminal defendants. “It’s so important to make sure we’re making good decisions early on in what’s in the best interests of the child,” said Ranum, who filled the seat vacated by the retiring Judge Thomas W. Wexler.
Ranum is still married to the man she met almost 40 years ago on a military base in Germany. They have a 29-year-old daughter, who works for the University of Minnesota.
Ranum is a voracious reader who also habitually exercises by walking around Minneapolis lakes. Ranum’s office is adorned—among other reminders of her past—with Hmong textiles. These were a gift from her good friend, Mee Moua, the Minnesota legislator who was the first Hmong American elected to public office in the United States. Although she considers herself a Minnesotan, she said she will always retain her Southern heritage. “You can’t ever take where you grew up out of you.”
Today, Judge Ranum faces a docket of cases involving the same child-protection and domestic-violence issues that she has confronted her entire life. It would be difficult to imagine a judge more uniquely qualified for those challenges than Jane Ranum.