Given her history of service to the legal profession and the community in Hennepin County, as well as her recognized skill as a trial and appellate lawyer, Governor Pawlenty’s decision to appoint Mary Vasaly to the Fourth Judicial District at the end of last year—through use of the established merit selection process—should come as no surprise. Judge Vasaly’s prior leadership in the HCBA and other bar associations is likely well known to any reader of The Hennepin Lawyer. Perhaps less recognized, however, are her years of volunteer work with Children’s Law Center of Minnesota, Volunteer Lawyers Network, City of Edina Zoning Board of Appeals, Director of the Continental Ballet Company, and the University of St. Thomas School of Law mentorship program.
As to the timing of her own decision to apply for a judgeship, Vasaly acknowledges that it was a “hard decision, because I enjoyed the practice, the people and my clients at the Maslon firm so much.” But, she decided to grasp an opportunity to do something different at this stage of her career and life. An empty nest at home has recently allowed Judge Vasaly to buy an Arabian horse, named Ares, and pursue a childhood hobby she had earlier left behind for a family and career in law. The youngest of her three children is now a college senior, so the burden of tuition bills should soon be ending. As part of her bar association work, she became extremely impressed with the work done by the Hennepin County District Court judges and the efficiency of the court as a whole, and she was therefore “interested in being part of such a great judicial system.”
Her appointment comes at a time when the court’s efficiency is being put to the test like never before. The adoption of a new electronic filing system for civil litigation, while helpful in saving future costs and creating efficiencies, will not relieve the judiciary from paying the salaries of judges and clerks who must decide the cases based on the pleadings which are e-filed. From her new perspective, Judge Vasaly reports that the court is “already very efficient and has done a phenomenal job cutting costs.” As a result, there is nothing else left but to cut salaries, which of course means cutting staff, which in turn will unavoidably result in cutting the delivery of justice for the citizens of Hennepin County. As an example, Vasaly cannot have both a secretary and law clerk—she must pick only one. No longer can new judges hire their own court reporters—the courtrooms are wired for sound and live reporters only when necessary. Despite these significant challenges, Vasaly expresses a strong desire to make sure the Hennepin County District Court can “continue doing its work well, and have cases heard in a timely manner so that convictions will not be reversed for failure to have a speedy trial,” as has recently occurred.
Judge Vasaly is well-equipped to assist the court in confronting the challenge of doing more with less. During her recent tenure as president of the HCBA, she spent countless hours working to convince the legislature to soften the harsh cuts to the judiciary budget initially feared, as well as to encourage lawyers in Hennepin County to be more active in pro bono work by providing a model pro bono policy for potential use by medium and smaller sized firms. As a result of her work, Vasaly was honored by the Fourth Judicial District as the first recipient of the Steven A. Pihlaja Justice Partner Award, created to recognize the effort of justice partners to improve the justice system or provide assistance to the Fourth District. At the presentation of that award in 2009, Chief Judge Swenson remarked: “During her term as HCBA President, Mary Vasaly vigorously pursued necessary funding for the courts, the public defender, and the delivery of civil legal services to the disadvantaged in Hennepin County… The citizens of Hennepin County are indebted to her and we, the members of the Hennepin County bench, are proud to call her our justice partner.” In 2010, Vasaly was similarly recognized by Minnesota Women Lawyers (MWL) with its highest honor, the Myra Bradwell Award, which is given annually to an MWL member who expresses the highest ideals of the legal profession and who possesses the qualities exemplified by Myra Bradwell: courage, perseverance, and leadership on issues of concern to women.
Fortunately for the profession, Judge Vasaly has no plans to step back from community leadership and service to the profession. She currently serves as chair of the Infinity Project (founded by Vasaly and others for the purpose of encouraging gender diversity on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals), co-chair of the HCBA Membership Committee, and is in line to become chair of the MSBA Civil Litigation Section and president of the Minnesota Supreme Court Historical Society. Vasaly also continues to be a leader nationally, in the ABA Tort Trial and Insurance Practice Section.
Judge Vasaly has a rich and varied life history to draw on, outside of the private practice of law. After college, she worked as a registered nurse. Inspired by various family members who were lawyers (including her brother Tom Vasaly, currently an assistant Minnesota attorney general), she decided to apply to law school. Immediately after graduation from law school, while raising her young children with her husband, she served as an appellate lawyer for the Minnesota state public defender.
She subsequently joined Maslon Edelman Borman & Brand, where she practiced for over 25 years. At the Maslon firm, Vasaly handled all variety of commercial litigation, including noncompete litigation, ERISA, intellectual property and other employment matters. Vasaly was particularly known for her skill in appellate work. Throughout her years practicing at the Maslon firm, Vasaly performed pro bono work for the state public defender and spent a great deal of time volunteering on other pro bono assignments. Importantly, she always encouraged others, especially young lawyers, to devote some of their time to pro bono work. As HCBA president, she encouraged law firms to commit to a strategy making it possible for young lawyers to do public service work, such as by providing billable hour credits for pro bono up to a set limit.
Apart from her work to adequately fund the judiciary, encourage pro bono work and promote diversity, Vasaly has been well known for her work on the Quie Commission, advocating for reform in judicial selection. Commenting on current events and whether her views on the subject have been tempered by the situation in Iowa (where three Supreme Court justices were voted out of office last year in retention-elections), she observes that we need only look to what currently is now happening in Wisconsin (in the disputed 2011 Supreme Court Justice election) to understand the need to avoid partisan bickering among judicial candidates and the influence of campaign contributions from special interests.
Judge Vasaly is currently assigned only to criminal matters, as are the assignments of all new judges, so it will be some time before she is engaged in handling civil matters again. However, she has no burning desire to get back to civil work, and states that she is “delighted to do whatever is assigned to her and eager to learn criminal law” and was glad to take the time to study and learn the rules of criminal procedure. Vasaly values opportunities as a new judge to meet informally with other players in the criminal justice system—such as prosecutors and public defenders—all of whom have expressed a strong desire to collectively and continually improve the system.
Asked what the practicing bar should know about her expectations, she indicated that she has not had sufficient experience to form any particular opinions or expectations, with one exception. At trial, Judge Vasaly would like to have succinctly stated objections, citing either to the rule or name of the objection, and without arguing the objection unless asked to do so. Above all, she hopes and expects that lawyers appearing before her are upfront, honest and respectful— although she is quick to note, that is always how she has found the lawyers of Hennepin County to behave.
Her colleagues at the Maslon firm have decidedly mixed feelings about Vasaly’s appointment to the bench and departure from the law firm. But her former partner, Alain Beaudry, put it this way: “Mary was a brilliant, hard working and inspirational lawyer for all of us. Our sadness at her leaving is only alleviated by the recognition that the public is getting an extraordinary judge.” The rest of us can now look forward to appearing before a brilliant judge, committed to professionalism and public service.