Judge Rysavy: ‘I consider myself absolutely blessed’

Published 9:45 am Sunday, January 12, 2014

Mower County judge Donald Rysavy smiles as he thinks back over his career on the bench. Rysavy, along with fellow Mower County judge Fred Wellmann will be retiring from their long time serving. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Mower County judge Donald Rysavy smiles as he thinks back over his career on the bench. Rysavy, along with fellow Mower County judge Fred Wellmann will be retiring from their long time serving. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Late in December, a mother who’d struggled with drugs and bad companions, but had worked through the problems brought her daughter to Judge Donald Rysavy’s courtroom to introduce her daughter to the judge.

“She was so pleased that I’d taken enough interest in her to actually encourage her and to help,” Rysavy said.

As Rysavy prepares to retire May 2, he looked back at the Downtown Motel murder trial and the Erickson murder trial as challenging and rewarding. However, cases like the woman’s and people who overcome their issues just my be the most memorable. Most judges, Rysavy said, prize and miss the thank-you notes they receive, the adoptions they handle and the people they help usher through the system that put their lives and families back together.

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“Those are the successes,” he said. “The failures where you see the multiple generation criminal situation, multiple generation CHIPS situation — won’t miss those.”

At its core, Rysavy described his job as a people business.

“Being a judge is a balancing act,” he said. “I’ve always said you can’t lose your empathy. The minute you stop feeling for people, you’re forgetting what your primary job is, and that’s serving people.”

 From Owatonna to Austin

Rysavy was born in Owatonna and graduated from Owatonna High School. He attended Saint Mary’s College in Winona, where he majored in history and philosophy. He attended law school at the University of Minnesota.

After law school, he joined what was then Hoversten, Strom, Johnson & Rysavy in Austin.

Rysavy was with Hoversten for 22 years and was a partner for 20. Rysavy primarily did litigation work, but was a prosecutor for the city of Austin, did insurance defense litigation work, and did family litigation work.

“Typical small town: If it walks in the door, and you feel you’re able to handle it, you handle it,” Rysavy said.

Becoming a judge had long been a goal for Rysavy.

“It was something that was always in the back of my mind,” he said.

Rysavy was appointed by Gov. Arne Carlson, and his first day as a judge was Oct. 1, 1995.

“I went right on the bench doing an arraignment,” he said.

Absolutely blessed

In more than 18 years on the bench, the job has gotten busier for Rysavy.

“We’ve been chronically under-judged in Mower County for a long, long time,” he said.

According to Rysavy, a system that’s short on people can’t operate successfully unless everyone cooperates, and he’s seen that happen in Mower County.

“I consider myself absolutely blessed,” Rysavy said. “We’ve had a great relationship with law enforcement, with the prosecutors, with the public defenders and with court administration.”

“It’s been a great bunch of people to work with,” he added.

Like most counties, Rysavy has seen the crime rate tick up in his time on the bench, but he attributed that to a higher population and more societal problems, like methamphetamines, which wasn’t an issue when he became a judge.

Though Rysavy described Mower as under-judged, he doesn’t see enough workload for a third judge. Depending how busy it is, the need in Mower cycles around 2.4 to 2.7 judges, according to Rysavy, but not enough for three.

Most increases in the court system has been in criminal and juvenile are, Rysavy said, and the same people — prosecutors, public defenders, etc. — work on such cases.

“It’s difficult right now having two court rooms going at the same time when you’ve got the same people that may end up having to be in two place at the same time,” he said. “Three places is absolutely unworkable.”

On a spot basis, a third judge would be helpful, Rysavy said.

Mower County courts may be slightly understaffed, but Rysavy and employees in court administration have adapted.

“You’re busy, but I would prefer to be busy rather than twiddling my thumbs,” Rysavy said.

 A people job

Once he retires, Rysavy said he’ll miss everyone he works with in the court system, including those appearing in his courts.

Still, he admitted he won’t miss some cases, especially challenging family law, juvenile and CHIPS situations he’s presided over.

“We’re in a people job, and the idea is if you can, to help people,” he said. “You can’t always do that.”

A judge needs tough skin, Rysavy said, to make decisions people won’t always like.

“You have to make really important decisions in people’s lives, and you don’t always have the tools, and you don’t always have the information, but you still have to make the decision,” Rysavy said. “I won’t miss that a whole bunch.”

Early in his career, a judge told Rysavy to agonize over a decision up to a point, them make the decision and put it in the past.

“It may sound simple, but it’s really something you have to learn, otherwise you’d eat yourself up,” Rysavy said.

Still, he’s thought about certain cases for months after.

“You’re not a human being if you don’t think about those sometimes,” Rysavy said.

 ‘I certainly don’t plan on standing still’

After retirement, Rysavy will reflect on his next step, as he’s considering teaching and even taking courses. As a judge, he’s well-versed on criminal law and how it applies to the criminal justice system, so he could teach at community colleges.

He could take a step back to his roots as a history and philosophy major by taking higher-level courses.

“I certainly don’t plan on standing still,” he said.

Rysavy and Jane, his wife of 42 years, are planning to travel. The two like the outdoors and prefer being active on vacations — most of the time.

“I wouldn’t mind spending a couple weeks on a tropical beach someplace,” he said during the recent cold stretch. “Especially on a day like today.”

With many golf photos, frames and knick-knacks in his office, it’s no surprise Rysavy is planning to spend more time golfing after he retires.

“I consider the golf course as almost a second home. … I don’t think there are much prettier places than well-kept golf courses,” he said.

However, Rysavy admitted Minnesota weather and the requirements of the job limit his chances.

“I was a much better golfer when I was an attorney,” Rysavy said.