On the road to retirement
LUVERNE -- When Timothy Connell was offered the job of Rock County Attorney in 1976, he pointed out politely that the county would have to wait until he took the bar exam. Which it did.
Retelling the story in his judge's chambers 35 years later, Connell chuckled at the memory. Appointed as the Murray County Court Judge in 1987 by Gov. Rudy Perpich and sworn in on June 30 that year, Connell is now ready to hang up his robe -- for the most part, anyway.
Since 1988, he has held chambers in Luverne, and his last day of full-time service will be Tuesday. He has presided over cases primarily in Luverne and Worthington, will work as a retired judge until the position is filled and will stay on as a drug court judge until he feels someone from the organization is ready to step into his shoes.
Connell was born and raised in Luverne, graduating from Luverne High School in 1967.
"That's the same year Judge (Jeffrey) Flynn graduated from Worthington," Connell laughed. "We played football against each other, then went to the same college, even lived on the same floor."
After graduating from St. John's University in 1971, Connell attended the William Mitchell College of Law, graduating in 1976. He headed home to Luverne and started working with attorney Mort Skewes.
He was 27 years old when he was asked to take over the position of county attorney.
"I did that for 11 years, also working as part of a three-man law practice," he said.
He married his high school sweetheart, Connie, and together they raised three children, Erin, Patrick and Peter. They now have four grandchildren, with a fifth on the way.
As a student at St. John's, Connell had been encouraged by a professor to think about law school.
"You'd make a good lawyer," he was told.
"It's interesting how people you respect can say something that doesn't seem very important at the time, but later has the ability to influence your life," Connell noted.
He had considered the law already, but the comment from his professor pushed him toward that particular career.
Years later, Judge Gary Crippen encouraged him to think about sitting behind a bench someday.
"I had never really thought seriously about it before," Connell admitted.
After the phone call from the governor, Connell became what would be the last county judge in Minnesota, replacing Judge John Holt and driving to Slayton most days to don his robe. When he ran for and was elected to the position in 1988, he requested that his chambers be relocated to Luverne. By then, judges were named to districts and not counties.
Making the transition from arguing law to presiding over the court was an interesting change for Connell. He still worked with and saw many of the same attorneys, but from a different perspective.
"In a small town, you develop relationships with many attorneys, and you have a tendency to keep each other honest," he stated. "As a judge, you don't necessarily change, but the relationship is different."
Joking about his bad memory, Connell said there are a lot of things he doesn't always recall, but for some reason, the moment he walked into a courtroom wearing his imposing black robe for the first time is crystal clear in his mind.
After sliding the robe over his shoulders, thinking, "A robe? Really?" he walked into a courtroom for his first hearing as a judge.
"I sat down on the bench, and everyone just looked at me," Connell chuckled. "Finally it dawned on me that I was expected to start this thing."
Seeing everyone jump to their feet when he walked in the room felt a bit strange, he admitted, and still does, but he understands the point.
"It's not about the judge. It's about respect for the position," Connell remarked.
There are definitely cases that have stuck in Connell's mind over the years, such as the murder case involving Randy Swaney, who was convicted of killing state park worker Carrie Nelson. But other cases have faded in his memories, mostly because of the number of people he saw on a daily basis.
"I'd see 20 to 30 people on Monday here in Luverne, then see another 30 to 40 in Nobles County the next day," he explained.
Cases such as the Nelson murder stick with him, he said, because of the amount of work that goes into getting a case like that to trial -- hearings, motions, orders and the grueling nature of the trial.
Seeing cases involving children and families over the years -- neglect, abuse and even complicated divorces -- could be difficult and often times frustrating, especially when "you know some of these people are never going to get it," Connell said. But other cases, the successes, helped to balance that heavy weight.
"You'd see the situation and know that some of these people could find their way through it," he explained, choosing his words with care. "There are some people who don't necessarily have criminal intent. Some good people do bad things."
A decision he made early in his judgeship helped Connell both in his job and his life.
"I really tried to make a commitment and work each case hard, listening to the arguments, reading every document and researching the law," he said. "But once I made a decision, that case was done. If you second-guess every decision, it would destroy you."
Connell is the first to acknowledge that he may have made mistakes over the years, perhaps giving some people breaks that he shouldn't have, but realizing that he has never made a decision in a half-way has stopped him from dwelling over each one.
"You agonize over a case, make a decision, then let it go," he explained.
Connell agreed to work on a part-time basis, maybe 1½ days a week for now, but said his one sticking point is that he would not drive anywhere this winter. After presiding over cases in a large part of the Fifth Judicial District for all those years, he doesn't want to face blizzards and ice to do so.
"I'll cover Luverne," he said with a smile.
He'll also be involved with the newly evolving drug court in a multi-county area and stick with it until it's appropriate to make a change, he said. The continuing consistency needed for the task is important, he feels, to get the project off to a good start. He got involved in the forming of a drug court in southwest Minnesota after seeing success stories in other districts and other parts of this district.
"I sent the district administrator an email and pointed out that Judge Flynn and I were still sending people to prison," he explained.
Some people dealing with addictions don't have criminal intent when sobriety can be maintained, he believes. He hopes a drug court will bear out that belief.
"Still, I'm not retiring to work," Connell joked.
Connie, who is a social worker at the Minnesota Veterans Home in Luverne, teases her husband that he'll be home and under her feet too much, but Connell doesn't share the same concern.
"I won't be at home," he laughed.
A life that has been dedicated to the law is now going to be focused on another passion -- golf.