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Q-and-A with new Carlton County judge Rebekka Stumme


September 20, 2019

Jana Peterson

Sixth District Carlton County Judge Rebekka Stumme has been on the bench since May. The former public defender - who actually started her career in Carlton County - said there's a big learning curve, but she really loves the job so far.

It's just another day in a Carlton County courtroom, and Sixth District Carlton County Judge Rebekka Stumme is working her way through the final half dozen cases on that morning's docket.

One of the defendants - in court because she failed to meet with her probation officer several times - says she's been unable to get a ride there, and also unable to reach anyone to set up an appointment for a Rule 25 assessment.

Stumme (her surname rhymes with "tummy") gently reminds the woman that probation is a privilege.

"The other option is jail," the judge told her. "You have to be able to follow through on what they tell you to do. If you don't, something will happen and you will sit in jail until probation feels like you are ready."

As the morning wears on, Stumme listens to attorneys and their defendants, asking questions and stopping at least one defendant who gets loud and repetitive. The judge remains calm as she explains actions and consequences, and renders her decisions on the various motions.

Stumme said her years as both a public defender and prosecutor come in handy on the bench, as does her experience working in Carlton County early in her career. She came here first as a law clerk for Judge Munger on days that he helped out in Carlton County, and then as a half-time public defender defender, when she did mostly juvenile work, misdemeanors and some felonies. She met her husband, Nate, in Carlton County. He was also a defense attorney here.

"Those relationships in Carlton have been treasured, long standing and it's been fun to come back here and see a lot of the same folks and kind of pick up where I left off," Stumme said.

The Pine Knot News sat down with Stumme last month to find out more about Carlton County's newest judge.

Q: Why did you go into law to begin with?

Judge Rebekka Stumme: I have always wanted to help people. I remember as a kid seeing things I thought were unfair, being really bothered by that and wanting to stand up for people who maybe couldn't for themselves - so the law always seemed a natural fit. And that initial feeling has proven to be true, both in my public defender work as well as my prosecutor work, even though you're standing up for different people and different sides of it.

Q: How do you get to be a judge? Do you just tell someone, hey, I want to be a judge?

Stumme: When there's a retirement on the bench and it's in the middle of a judge's term, then you submit a bunch of paperwork and recommendations and apply to a judicial judges selection commission. There's a local interview process, where they whittle down the pool to generally three. Those three go and meet the governor and the governor makes the final decision.

I'd been encouraged by a lot of different people to apply. It wasn't something I always thought I would do, but the longer I practiced, I realized it could be a very rewarding way to continue to grow in the career.

Q: Big picture, what's the job of a judge?

Stumme: It's striking a balance with rehabilitation and holding people accountable. There has to be a balance there. There are victims who need to be heard, their feelings and fears and desires need to be listened to and heard and put into the bin of information you have to figure out the right decision. The ultimate goal is rehabilitation. It's not always possible. And rehabilitation looks different in every situation.

Q: Is it difficult to hold people accountable?

Stumme: No case is the same, no two people are the same. I try to be fair. I try to understand there are challenges that people have that you and I don't have. Like transportation is a very big issue in a rural community. At the same time, court is serious and court has to be taken seriously, as does probation. I'd say probably 10 percent of the time you're like, gosh, I hope I'm making the right call because they could go either way.

There's definitely not a science.

Q: What is the breakdown of your caseload?

Stumme: I don't know that I can answer that. Domestic violence, drugs and alcohol are probably the things you see the most commonly. Then you've always got the property crimes or burglary stuff that is related to most likely drugs, getting items to buy drugs.

Q: Of course you're still in the legal system, but how is it different now?

Stumme: I think what's most different is, when you're an advocate for one outcome or the other, to a certain extent you have to try to anticipate what the other side is going to argue. As a judge you're hoping the lawyers are going to give you the information you need to make a good solid decision. I kind of miss being an advocate every once in awhile, but those days are over.

I am the drug court judge here in Carlton and I have enjoyed that, probably the most. It's been a natural transition.

Q: Do you think drug court is the way to go?

Stumme: Yes. It's a very intensive way to address people's use. There are lots of root causes for the reasons people use. And it's not only dealing with "don't do drugs, or don't drink alcohol," it's trying to get at the root of why that all started for them to try to make them a healthier, whole person. We tried to arrest and jail and imprison our way out of the drug problem and it hasn't worked.

Q: Do you get a mentor judge?

Stumme: Judges Macaulay and Tarnowski are my mentor judges. The reason I have another judge on top of Judge Macaulay is because, in a two-judge courthouse, we're both on the bench. So like when an emergency arises, Judge Macaulay might not be able to be right there. All the judges are, honestly, really helpful.

I can just step away from the bench and tell people, "I need to take a little recess here. I need to look into an issue" and then track down Judge Macauley and hope he's not on the bench.

Q: Is it everything you thought it would be?

Stumme: So far I love it. It's great. We have wonderful staff here at the courthouse that have taken really good care of me. I have my own personal court reporter, Shelly Lind, has been awesome, the attorneys ... everyone's been very welcoming. Judge Macaulay's been great.

So far Stumme is getting high marks from coworkers.

"I have nothing but good things to say about her," said Sixth District Chief Judge Sally Tarnowski.


Carlton County district court is part of the Sixth Judicial District that includes St. Louis, Lake and Cook counties in northeastern Minnesota. It includes 16 judges.

There are 10 judicial districts in the state.

There are 294 judges covering courts in the 10 districts, with 106 court facilities.

There were 45,672 case filings in the Sixth in 2018, ranking the district ninth in cases filed. The majority of cases (58 percent) involved minor criminal matters, a total of 26,8882. There were 8,737 minor civil actions (19 percent) and 3,358 major criminal cases (7 percent). The percentages were on track with filings across the state.

Filings in district court include civil actions, criminal cases, family cases, juvenile cases, probate and violations of city ordinances. District courts also hear appeals from conciliation court and conciliation civil disputes up to $15,000.

Districts covering the cities of Saint Paul (Second District, Ramsey County) and Minneapolis (Fourth District, Hennepin County) had the highest number of filings — 167,925 in the Second and 486,139 in the Fourth.

~ Information from the Minnesota Judicial Branch 2018 annual report.


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