Robert M. Small
Originally published in the September 2006 issue.
Author: Brynn Rhodes
The Hon. Robert M. Small was appointed on Feb. 1, 2006, to the Fourth Judicial District of Minnesota. A native of New Jersey, Judge Small first came to Minnesota as a U.S. Marine under somber circumstances. Although military service in any arena can alter the life of an individual under countless circumstances, Robert Small’s life changed when his friend and colleague fell in Vietnam.
Small accompanied his slain friend’s body back to the friend’s native state of Minnesota. During their years of service in the military, attitudes in the United States regarding Vietnam had become politically and culturally charged. The United States was in turmoil. It would be years later that the judge would look back carefully on that period of his life and that period of U.S. history. Only then would the hardships of young men and women serving on foreign soil, and of civil and political unrest in cultures and countries very different from the United States, be understood from the perspective of a veteran and a public servant.
In 1968, this young man’s attention was not on the political environment but instead was focused on the personal challenges of grieving for his lost friend and in understanding the previous four years’ experience in the context of his own life.
Ending his Vietnam as well as his Marine Corps service in 1968, the judge’s future was then shaped by a chance introduction to a Minnesota woman, Renee, whom he eventually married. The judge and his wife made their home in Minnesota, where they have resided for 37 years—in a way, a tribute to the life of his fallen friend those many years ago.
After relocating to Minnesota, Judge Small attended the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul where he majored in sociology. He began working at the Lino Lakes Department of Corrections, then a juvenile facility, while attending college. It was there that he developed a real interest in the law as a result of his experiences with the criminal justice system.
Those experiences inspired him to attend night school at the William Mitchell College of Law while he worked days at the Veterans Administration (VA). After his January 1975 graduation and after passing the bar, he joined the VA’s Office of District Counsel at Fort Snelling as a staff attorney. Judge Small then served as the administrative assistant to the chief of staff with the U.S. Veterans Administration Medical Center in Minneapolis from 1980 to 1981.
In 1981, Judge Small’s career turned somewhat when he became an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Minnesota. He did trial work on a regular basis, gaining both experience and opportunities that he wouldn’t have had otherwise. Small served as an assistant U.S. attorney in Minneapolis, a position he held from 1998 until his appointment to the bench, except during 2001, when he was the acting U.S. attorney for the district of Minnesota. The highlight of his 25 years as an assistant U.S. attorney, according to Small, was the opportunity to work with an outstanding group of lawyers.
Judge Small didn’t always envision himself on the bench. He had always thought judges ought to be people experienced in the law from the broadest possible perspective. He wasn’t sure that he was “good enough, or smart enough,” but after serving in both the criminal and civil division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he began to consider the possibility that he may have something to offer the bench. He thought that he “might be able to do that.”
It is easy to sympathize with Judge Small when he says, laughing, “that it wasn’t long before I found out that I still had a lot to learn!” He credits both excellent training programs and the mentorship of seasoned judges for any success he may have had in those early days. While new judges are expected to call their mentors with questions, no matter how small, Judge Small commented that his mentors were not only knowledgeable, they were also untiringly helpful and patient.
His experience as a U.S. attorney had already made him comfortable in courtrooms. Despite that fact, Judge Small was surprised about the significant difference in volume between state and federal courts in his first four months on a civil rotation in suburban courts. On his first “solo day” he faced 140 cases on the docket. Despite the fact that some cases fall off the docket due to ongoing negotiations, sizable dockets are the norm in suburban civil courts, with Mondays often starting the week with 80 to 100 cases before the bench.
In spite of that initial heavy caseload, Judge Small remains positive and content with his work, life, and career choices. When asked how he would advise the attorneys that come before him in court, Judge Small prefaced his comment by saying, with sincerity, that both prosecutors and defenders have been unbelievably helpful in sharing information that they think he may need to make decisions. With a broad smile, he added, “They should know, however, that I stay up on the law, and that today, I think I have the experience to know what I’m doing.”