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Hanging up their robes

Published 9:45am Sunday, January 12, 2014
Judges Fred Wellmann and Donald Rysavy have both spent several years on the bench in Mower County and both are retiring this spring.  Eric Johnson/
Judges Fred Wellmann and Donald Rysavy have both spent several years on the bench in Mower County and both are retiring this spring.
Eric Johnson/

In Judge Fred Wellmann’s office in the Mower County Jail and Justice Center, there’s a plaque that reads “Civility and professionalism. Nothing less will be tolerated,” plaques he and Judge Donald Rysavy both received from the American Board of Trial Advocacy.

Wellmann recently used the plaque to summarize how the two judges have conducted themselves as judges in the Third Judicial District — they’ve always tried to treat everyone in their courtrooms with respect.

Both judges sent notices to Gov. Mark Dayton in early January announcing they will retire this spring after decades on the bench and as attorneys in Austin.

Rysavy said judges have to realize they’re sentencing people and empathize with their situation, remembering that under different circumstances they could be in their shoes.

“I’ve always felt that people who are sentenced are people first of all, and you’ve got to treat them in that fashion,” Rysavy said.

Wellmann also said he’s tried to treat people with respect.

“You don’t demean people,” Wellmann said. “Treat them with courtesy, and in return they’ll treat you with courtesy and likewise treat other people in the courtroom with courtesy.”

Sidebar‘They’re caring individuals’

As word of their upcoming retirements spread, attorneys and court employees praised the judges as respectable and fair public servants.

“I think that they’ve both done an extraordinary job as judges,” Attorney Paul Sween of Adams, Rizzi & Sween said. “Not only were they capable, but they treated me and the other attorneys in front of them with a great deal of respect and consideration. That doesn’t always happen.”

Sween, who worked with the two before they were judges, said he enjoyed practicing law in Rysavy and Wellmann’s courtrooms, adding they always made decisions in a reasonable amount of time, which isn’t always the norm.

“I found them both to be extremely courteous and diligent,” Sween said.

Correctional Services Director Steve King, who was hired by Rysavy and Wellmann about nine years ago, described the two as great bosses.

“They have been absolutely a joy to work with,” he said. “They are the leaders on the court floor. Everything kind of trickles down through them.”

When King was hired, the two judges told him they planned to be hands off bosses, letting him run his department. They’ve kept their word, and King described them as approachable bosses who don’t micromanage and are open to outside-the-box thinking.

Both judges command a lot of respect and get it from people they work with and from offenders, King said.

“They’re very caring individuals,” King said. “It’s not like they’re heavy on the incarcerations.”

Though the judges sometimes take heat for perceived light sentences, King described the criticism as unjustified, as the two are bound by Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines.

Under the guidelines, a person with a similar criminal history would receive an identical sentence in Mower County as he or she would in another county for the same crime, according to King.

Court Administrator Patricia Ball worked with Rysavy at Hoversten and with Wellmann when he was county attorney.

“It’s been great working with them,” she said. “They are both great judges, and they’re really great bosses.”

Ball will most remember the judges for promoting a team approach in court administration, corrections, law enforcement, the county attorney’s office and across the board, something that has to come from the top down.

“That’s the legacy they have left here,” Ball said.

Though the caseload in Mower is often high enough for about 2.7 judges, Ball said there’s no backlog of cases in Mower County.

“Mower County would be sinking fast if it wasn’t for them and how they do their job,” she said.

Sheriff Terese Amazi said she’ll miss the two.

“They will definitely be missed,” Amazi said. “Both of them were very even-keeled, and you always pretty much knew what to expect.”

Amazi joked she could always tell when things weren’t going well in the courtroom: Rysavy would start rubbing his forehead, and Wellmann’s face would turn red.

Attorney Dan Donnelly described both judges as very intelligent, good people, adding the two are never quick to lose their temper and treat everyone from attorneys to defendants with respect.

“They’re fair with everybody,” he said. “It’s going to be tough to see them go.”

Wellmann and Rysavy have been on the bench ever since Donnelly came to Austin as a new attorney in 2003.

“They’re both excellent judges,” he said. “It’s been a pleasure to work with them.”

 Best wishes

Though the two judges have different work styles, Rysavy described their working relationship as comfortable, noting they have a similar philosophy.

That agreement helps prevent “judge shopping” in Mower County, where people would try to have a particular case in front of a more liberal or more conservative judge.

Both judges agreed they are conservative, but not from a political standpoint.

“We follow the law as it’s written,” Rysavy said. “We don’t go off the page someplace. Both of us have always believed district judges apply the law; they don’t make the law, and they shouldn’t.”

Donnelly agreed both judges are consistent and rarely removed from any case.

Attorney David Hoversten described the two as legal scholars that never insert personal beliefs or biases into decisions.

“They believe in the strength of the law, and they apply the law,” Hoversten said.

Both Wellmann and Rysavy were partners at the Hoversten firm before becoming judges.

Hoversten, of Hoversten, Beckman, Johnson & Hovey, worked with Rysavy and Wellmann at the firm.

“I was sad to see them leave our firm, because they were really good attorneys,” he said.

Hoversten wished the two luck after long and prosperous careers.

“I give them my best wishes,” he said.

Sween also wished them well in retirement.

“I’m going to miss them both, and I would thank them for their many many years of service,” Sween said.

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