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Judge Wellmann: ‘The best job of my life has been a judge’

Published 9:45am Sunday, January 12, 2014
Mower County judge Fred Wellmann talks about his years on the bench from his chambers. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com
Mower County judge Fred Wellmann talks about his years on the bench from his chambers. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Judge Judy couldn’t cut it in Minnesota, according to Judge Fred Wellmann.

As Wellmann readies to retire April 4, he cited his approach of treating people with respect for helping him be successful.

“Judge Judy is not the epitome of being a judge,” Wellmann said, referring to the gruff television star. “And if you acted like Judge Judy did, I don’t think you would be a judge in the state of Minnesota.”

Wellmann’s focus on respect has paid off, as people he’s sentenced to prison have been friendly with him after serving their term.

“That tells me one thing: At least I treated them halfway decent, or I wouldn’t be getting that,” he said.

Wellmann admitted he’s not yet ready to hang up his robe, but he has to retire when he turns 70 on May 7.

Like Judge Donald Rysavy, Wellmann plans to continue working after his retirement as a senior judge, which he can do after he turns 70.

“I don’t want to retire,” he said. “I’m one of those guys who still feels I’m capable of doing it, and I’d still like to do it.”

 An Austin native

Wellmann is an Austin native and a 1962 Austin High School graduate. He graduated from what is now Minnesota State University, Mankato, where he majored in biology and urban studies, and also earned chemistry and math minors.

Wellmann worked briefly with Hormel Foods Corp. in Fremont, Neb., where he worked in quality control; but, he and his wife, Dianne, decided to move back to Minnesota.

At age 26, Wellmann started night classes at William-Mitchell College of Law, and he worked in the properties division of Dayton-Hudson during the day.

After law school, he opted to leave Dayton-Hudson for a law firm in Marshall.

“I had the bug for being in trials,” he said.

In 1975, a position opened up in the Mower County Attorney’s office — a job Rysavy turned down, according to Wellmann — and he took the job.

He worked in the county attorney’s office, serving as a joint prosecutor for the county and city of Austin, before being elected county attorney in 1978. In 1980, he took a job at Hoversten, where he was partner, working with insurance defense, trials, criminal defense, and he was an assistant city attorney. He also worked with the planning and zoning commission.

Wellmann was appointed by Gov. Jesse Ventura and went on the bench in November of 2000.

He replaced Judge Michael Seibel — whom Wellmann had previously hired in the county attorney’s office — after he died of cancer June 16, 2000.

Wellmann described being a judge as an intellectually stimulating profession.

“I love the law,” Wellmann said. “I love researching the law. I like the scholarship that’s involved in the law. It’s constantly changing. It’s not black and white, there’s always that gray area.”

Along with many changes to the law over the years, Wellmann also said he’s seen methamphetamines and violent crime become bigger issues in Mower County, but he said that may be cyclical.

A civil and peaceful manner

Like Rysavy, Wellmann shows empathy for the people appearing in his courtroom, saying few are truly bad people.

“I’ve seen people make some bad mistakes, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen pure evil,” Wellmann said. “I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, but I don’t think I’ve seen it.”

To Wellmann, most people appearing in his courtroom are decent, good people with a problem needing to be resolved.

“We try to do that in a civil and peaceful way,” he said.

That doesn’t mean Wellmann hasn’t seen people act out. Wellmann said he’s always surprised when people come to court seeking conditions of release from jail and proceed to act out in court.

“It’s always amazing to me that there are people who think they’ll get more by acting out or get what they want by acting out,” Wellmann said.

Contrary to popular belief, the judges do not use gavels in the courtroom. For Wellmann, simply holding up a hand to ask someone to be quiet is more effective.

 Public servants

Though he may not always agree with everyone, Wellmann said he’s going to miss all the people who work with the court system.

“We’ve got good public servants,” Wellmann said.

Wellmann said he’ll miss the interaction with staff and the people who appear in court. He praised the court and court administration staff, county attorneys, public defenders, law enforcement officials, guardian ad litems and corrections staff.

“I’m going to miss all those people,” he said.

Looking back over his career, Wellmann said some of his proudest moments are seeing success stories out of difficult situations.

“The things that make me feel the happiest are when we have children who have been removed from their parents finding adopted parents,” Wellmann said.

He also fondly remembers watching people with chemical dependency problems find sobriety, as he’s seen people improve their lives.

“Those come sometimes in small steps; sometimes they come in big steps, but you can see some progression in people’s lives and that makes you feel good,” he said.

When asked if there’s anything he won’t miss about being a judge, Wellmann had a simple answer: Waking up early.

Wellmann said he doesn’t have any “What if?” scenarios as he nears retirement.

“The best job of my life has been a judge,” Wellmann said.

 Retirement

Attorney Paul Sween joked that Wellmann was an OK poker player, as they’ve played poker with a group of area residents once a month since the 1970s. He noted they often talk more than they play poker.

“He’s always been very calm,” Sween said of Wellmann. “Not easy to ruffle his feathers.”

Like Rysavy, Wellmann has several golf knick-knacks in his office. He has autographs of golfers Tom Lehman and Steve Stricter in his office.

But, he admitted Rysavy is the better golfer.

“I’m not going to golf six of seven days a week; he will,” Wellmann said of Rysavy.

Once he’s retired, Wellmann may audit college classes, but he likely won’t teach, as he doesn’t want to be tied to the schedule.

Along with spending time with his two children and his grandchildren, Wellmann plans to travel. As a judge, Wellmann said it’s often difficult to take vacations, as the workload piles up.

Though Wellmann and Dianne may opt for warmer climates for a month or two in the winter, they plan to remain in the area.

“I’m a Minnesota boy; my wife’s a Minnesota woman,” Wellmann said.

 


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