After uncertain start, Judge Benson finding it hard to separate from law
Tuesday, March 12, 2013 8:29 AM
If it wasn't for the element carbon, Fillmore County may have never seen Robert Benson, 68, serve for over 16 years as a Third District judge from which he is retiring on March 31.
Judge Robert Benson will be retiring from his post as a Third District judge at the end of this month.
"I wanted to be a doctor," Benson shared, explaining that he started out as a pre-med student at Augsburg College. He started questioning his career choice when he started taking organic chemistry recalling his thoughts, "I don't really like this."
At the same time, Benson was getting into constitutional issues and discussing them with other students at college. He switched into a political science major, became a lawyer, and the rest has been a life full of service in justice to southeastern Minnesota.
Benson was born in Owatonna, but mainly grew up just north of Minneapolis at Brooklyn Center. He stayed in the Twin Cities area for college, becoming the first at Augsburg to receive a bachelor of arts in political science in 1967. He continued forward by passing his law school admission test and being accepted into William Mitchell College of Law. Since it was a night school at that time, Benson worked full-time during the day as an adjudicator in veterans' administration.
He earned his juris doctor professional doctorate in 1971, which allowed him to begin practicing law in a private practice. It was at that time, he and his wife, Sandra, began looking for a better place to raise their first child, Rebekah. Benson saw several practices advertising in southeast Minnesota and he began a tour of the area.
"It was the plain beauty that drew me," he recalled. "Neither one of us knew there was this kind of country here."
He moved his family and began working with David Joerg in Preston in 1972. In 1975, Benson became the Fillmore County attorney while still maintaining his own practice. He continued to do so until 1996 when he was appointed to district judge.
As a lawyer, Benson felt his workload was significant and thought, as a judge, the number of hours he would need to work would be more relaxed. That wasn't the case and once he became the chief judge over 23 other district judges, the work never ended.
A typical day would see Benson starting court at 8:30 a.m., taking a brief lunch break, and finishing court around 4:30 p.m. If a case gets settled early, he gets a head start in his office on writing up his decision and doing any research he needs for the case. He then heads home and spends two to three additional hours working on other cases and reading new cases that have come down. He considers his evenings and weekends as "catch-up time."
In order to stay ahead, Benson has had to build a great work ethic. He credits his grandfather, who worked on a farm, with inspiring him. Benson's father was an attorney, but he said that didn't influence him too much in becoming one as well.
"I'm self-driven. I had to satisfy myself," he shared.
That motivation also comes from his feelings about justice. "I believe very strongly in a well-ordered government. I think everyone is entitled to protection from each other and protection from the government," he shared. Much of his philosophy in regards to being a judge was based in honoring the law.
"Even if I think it is a bad law, I make sure that it is honored," he explained. Benson said his time as judge has given him renewed appreciation for the three-part government the state and nation operates under.
"I feel the judicial system in Minnesota is one of the best in the country," he stated adding, "We have striven very hard to make a good and fair system with high quality judges."
Part of that success, Benson said, has come from the system staying apolitical, or not aligning with partisan politics. As a judge, Benson found himself being able to completely forget about his own personal convictions while serving in the courtroom.
"Sometimes it may hurt to make a decision that doesn't stand for your philosophy," he explained. "When you open that door, you don't do things you wouldn't otherwise do," he said, explaining how his mind operates when in the courtroom. Building up that psyche took 16 years to do and it isn't something Benson will be able to just shrug off when he retires.
"The stresses of the job are high," he shared. As the man handing down sentences that affect individuals and families, Benson feels not too many people realize that judges still have emotion.
"It is emotionally difficult to judge another human being's actions," he said. "They don't know how that wears a person down. You frequently second guess yourself and you don't always come to terms with what your decision is. People sometimes forget judges are human and subject to the same frailties."
He also shared he used to stay up a lot of nights, writing down ideas that would come into his head, while being unable to sleep. Through it all, he has still been able to develop a positive perspective of humanity.
"In this business, you have difficulty viewing humanity as troubled. People are basically good," he said.
When he first began, he felt like "everybody was doing something bad." He later began to see that most of the people who came to court weren't inherently bad people, but people who had just made a wrong decision.
"I think most people respect order and want it in society. Even people who have disagreed with my decisions maintain respect for the court," Benson shared.
The secrets to being a good judge, he said, are to be fair and also be a public figure. "You are the face of justice," he said. "If you aren't doing it well, the people let you know."
Ironically, Benson feels being a judge has helped him become less judgmental. "I'm less willing to ascribe to someone the type of person they are and why they did something. I've realized people do things for many reasons."
He also feels like he is now able to understand different personalities more than he could before.
When Benson exits the courthouse for the last time as district judge, he will be leaving a career that has changed in the time he has been there. While much of the casework demographics have remained unchanged, the technology providing access to that work has.
When Benson started, filing systems and typewriters were still being used in some areas. Today, a huge online database allows Benson to carry his entire law library on his laptop. Speech recognition software also allowed Benson to make quick rough drafts of opinions by just talking to his computer.
"I would guess within another three to five years there won't be any paper in the courtroom. We've really entered into the electronic world and we'll go deeper because it saves money," he said. The next judge to fill Benson's shoes will have to deal with those changes.
Even after Benson is officially retired, he said he will continue to work sometimes during the transition period before the new judge is appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton.
However, he will have more time to focus on his other hobbies and his wife. "I've had an extremely understanding wife, who's stuck with me for 45 years. She has been encouraging me to retire for some time," he shared. Benson also enjoys reading, hunting, fishing and growing native grasses and wildflowers. Benson will also be focusing on his maple syruping.
"You always feel some confliction about retiring, but I'm also looking forward to it," he commented, adding that being a judge is who he is. "It's become a part of me that isn't easily separable."
Benson will also be able to spend time with his son, Matt, who lives in Preston. According to Benson, Matt works with carbon atoms and tries to create stronger materials.
Now that his service to the Third District is nearly over, Benson may find himself trying to understand carbon once again.
The Third Judicial District consists of the 11 counties in southeast Minnesota. Twenty-three judges serve the district. Besides Fillmore County, the other counties include: Dodge, Freeborn, Houston, Mower County, Olmsted, Rice, Steele, Wabasha, Waseca and Winona County. Benson serves as chief judge of this district.