District Court judge Bruce Gross stepping down from bench after 23 years
WINDOM -- Perhaps because of his strong love of hunting and the outdoors, Judge Bruce Gross has always referred to his regular circuit of county courtrooms as his 'trap line.'
After 23 years of running that line, he is ready to retire -- as soon as the courts will let him, that is. His official last day is today, but he will be back in his chambers bright and early Monday morning to start work as a senior judge.
Gross didn't start out his career as an attorney. Instead, he went another direction, as that of a police officer.
Gross was born and raised in Brainerd, and after graduation attended Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. In 1967, he started working as a police office in Pelican Lakes Village, which is now Breezy Point.
He became a deputy with the Nicollet County Sheriff's Office a short time later, eventually ending up a probation agent. It was that facet of law enforcement that brought him to southwest Minnesota. He became a probation agent for Cottonwood/Jackson counties.
Six years later, he started to pursue his law degree, attending Hamline University at night while working as a correctional security caseworker at Stillwater Prison during the day.
"Working at the prison every day was a strong incentive to finish law school," Gross said.
He worked with the inmates and the parole board, preparing information and classification teams within the institution to determine sentencing -- a forerunner, he said, of the current sentencing guidelines used in the judicial system.
It took three years, and after receiving his law degree, he returned to Windom and became a partner in the Ruenitz, Gudmestad, Gross & McDonald law firm. He was elected Cottonwood County Attorney in 1978, working as both a public and private attorney until he was appointed to the bench as a district court judge 23 years ago this week on July 31, 1989.
His years of police and probation work helped prepare him for the bench, but he doesn't believe it affected how he presides from behind it.
"I think every life experience has some kind of affect as to your evaluation capabilities," he said. "But you still have to apply the ethical part of the law."
His "trap line" of court houses over the years has included Cottonwood, Jackson, Martin, Faribault, Watonwan and Blue Earth counties, but Gross said he has presided over cases in many other Minnesota counties. He's had many memorable cases over the years, and has watched the law evolve and change as an attorney and from the bench.
"There have been some changes in the juvenile area and child protective services," Gross explained. "A lot of that has to do with more hearings and timing."
The courts are working to move juvenile cases along faster, he said, because it isn't fair to the children to drag things out.
Another change that has come about is the number of cases he sees involving the lack of car insurance and driving after suspension or cancellation. There is seemingly a revolving door, and many cases are a part of economics and poverty, he said.
During his years a probation agent, he said, crime victim support was in its infancy, but the courts tried to do what they could to make victims whole again. These days, Gross said he wonders if the courts are moving in the opposite direction.
"Are we really doing anything meaningful in that area?" he asked.
One thing he is still working on is getting a drug court set up in Cottonwood County, and he's doing it with the help of another judge -- his daughter, Judge Krista Jass. Gross and his daughter are the only father/daughter judges in Minnesota. His son, Brett, is a teacher in Brainerd.
Gross isn't sure how long he'll work as a senior judge, and admitted with a laugh that he's already worked longer than he had originally planned.
"By the time deer hunting comes around this year, I'm gone," he laughed.
He spends a lot of time on habitat development, and loves to hunt and fish -- so much, he said, that when he's not doing it, he's planning it. He and his brother and friends own land in northern St. Louis County, he has a duck shack in Cottonwood County and has a home on Fish Lake.
Gross is also a member of the Minnesota Deer Hunting Association (MDHA), which keeps him busy, and he has served as the chair of the state MDHA ethics committee.
When it comes to leaving his chambers and bench behind, Gross said he will miss the people he sees as he travels his "trap line" each week. The feeling, evidentially, is mutual.
Paige Scholl, who has served as his stenographic court reporter since Gross was sworn in, wrote recently: "His strong work ethic, intelligence, sincere empathy and respect for all those who appeared before him, his well-rounded background and contagious sense of humor have made him a superior judge... He will be greatly missed on the bench by all."
Daily Globe Reporter Justine Wettschreck may be reached at 376-7322.