Compassion, control mark career of Minneapolis judge in Noor trial

Judge Kathryn Quaintance
Veteran Hennepin County Judge Kathryn Quaintance faces her biggest trial yet as a former Minneapolis cop is charged with killing a civilian. A look back at the judge's career shows her as a compassionate, sharp legal mind who's unafraid of controversy.
Nancy Muellner for MPR News

When Kathryn Quaintance became a judge more than 18 years ago, she suspected she wouldn't be quite the active participant she had been as a tough-as-nails prosecutor the decade before.

She couldn't have been more wrong.

"I had some apprehension about sitting and listening a lot as opposed to being sort of a player in the situation," she said a 2001 interview on Minneapolis public access TV. "And I find it way more fascinating than I thought it was going to be.

"Nothing is ever, ever dull," she added. "There's always incredibly compelling stories."

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Now, a major story is unfurling in her tiny Hennepin County courtroom as former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor is on trial in the 2017 on-duty shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk. Quaintance's demeanor, rulings and decisions are being closely watched across the globe. They also are likely to be reviewed even after a jury hands down its decision in the case, and could be used if attorneys appeal the case.

And those who have watched her work — in private practice, in the Hennepin County Attorney's office, then on the county's juvenile court bench and as a district court judge — said there's no one better to preside over the case. She metes out compassion and punishment evenhandedly, while following the letter of the law.

"She doesn't mind being controversial. It doesn't bother her to be somebody who says things that may not be something that everybody thinks," said Ann DeGroot, executive director of the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board, where they worked together several years ago. "She really can get at the core of something, and if it isn't popular she doesn't mind that."

The Noor trial, which is entering its fourth week, has not been without controversy. Quaintance ignited some of the controversy with her early decisions to restrict access to her 37-seat courtroom to the public and then to block the public from seeing the videotape of Ruszczyk dying in the alley.

Justine Damond
Justine Ruszczyk, also known with the last name Damond.
Courtesy Stephen Govel

She said she wanted to protect Ruszczyk's privacy.

"This is an issue of the right of the victim not having her bare breast exposed to strangers." Responders removed part of her clothing in their life-saving attempts. "I don't know who would want to watch it," Quaintance said, other than someone who wanted to see "snuff films."

After a coalition of eight media groups — including MPR News — objected, challenging her on First Amendment grounds, she changed her mind. It was classic Quaintance.

"I think that kind of captures her," said Bob Small, a retired judge who worked with Quaintance. "I thought that she was pretty gosh darn honest when she said, 'Look, this is what the law is and I've got to follow the law, whether I agree with it or not."

Through a spokesperson, Quaintance declined MPR News' interview request, citing the ongoing trial.

From the stage to the courtroom

Quaintance wasn't initially called to the law. She was an actor in high school and college and pursued a career in theater after graduation from college, according to a post on her Facebook page.

Even after she began her legal career, Quaintance appeared on stage. She acted in three Theatre in the Round Players productions in the 1990s.

She eventually entered law school at Rutgers University in New Jersey. After graduating in 1986, Quaintance moved to the Twin Cities to join the high-profile firm Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi.

Four years later, Quaintance left private practice and joined the criminal trials division in the Hennepin County Attorney's Office. She worked her way up in the prosecutor's office, becoming senior attorney in the domestic violence unit in 1996. Three years later, then newly elected Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar appointed her to manage the office's criminal cases.

"She became a respected violent crime prosecutor, managed a trial team, and prosecuted scores of murder and sex-crimes cases. Also, she knew all of the personalities in the office," Klobuchar wrote in her book "The Senator Next Door."

Klobuchar, who now serves as a Democratic U.S. senator, called Quaintance a "longtime friend" in her book. Klobuchar and Quaintance also met regularly to discuss how to charge cases, according to Klobuchar's book.

A year later, Independence Party Gov. Jesse Ventura appointed Quaintance to the bench.

Hennepin County Judge Kathryn Quaintance
Hennepin County Judge Kathryn Quaintance
Hennepin County Courts

As a judge, Quaintance has shown both empathy and sternness.

During the Noor trial, she comforted a teenage witness by not allowing the defense to make him say whether he had sold marijuana, or if he still smokes it. "You don't have to answer that," she told him, with a laugh.

Looking out for minors isn't new for the judge.

In 2012, Quaintance ruled that a teenage gang leader should be tried as a juvenile despite pressure from the Hennepin County Attorney's Office to have him tried as an adult.

She argued there was "clear and convincing evidence that retaining the proceedings in juvenile court serves public safety."

However, the state Court of Appeals disagreed. It overturned Quaintance's ruling, saying the teen had a "troubling tendency to engage in increasingly dangerous activity."

As a judge in criminal cases, Quaintance isn't afraid to throw the book at defendants when she thinks they deserve it, either. In a 2017 high-profile case where a man shot several rounds into a car full of Somali men, Quaintance went above and beyond the 25 years that prosecutors sought for his sentence.

Quaintance gave him 39, and the state appeals court upheld the sentencing.

'She just gives people the time they need'

The view from the jury box in the courtroom.
The view from the jury box in the courtroom.
Evan Frost | MPR News

In 2012, a 76-year-old woman, Sally Packard, came to Quaintance's courtroom to forgive a 17-year-old boy who stole her car.

The 1989 Dodge — her way of getting to church and to three-times-a-week doctor appointments — was trashed. But she still cared about the boy.

"Please let [the boy] know that I sincerely care about him, and I am praying for his redirection and rehabilitation," Packard said, according to a Star Tribune article. "A good life awaits him, if he will just choose a new path. God bless."

Quaintance — once the features editor of her high school newspaper in New Jersey — is no stranger to media. She has been regularly quoted in stories as an attorney in private practice, as a prosecutor and as a judge.

Packard's display in her courtroom so motivated Quaintance, she contacted then-Star Tribune columnist Jon Tevlin to pitch the story.

"She said, 'This is why we are judges: to see this kind of forgiveness and compassion,'" Tevlin recently recalled. "So I really took her to be a very thoughtful and compassionate person that she went out of her way to contact a reporter to say this is a really good story that needs to be told."

She had a second reason for contacting Tevlin: Packard likely couldn't afford a new car. Tevlin said the judge thought a piece in the newspaper might make someone step up to help.

"Sure enough they did," Tevlin said. "A dealership in town gave the woman a new car. A used car, but it was a nice one."

Tevlin said Quaintance is a judge who understands her broader role in the community. "[She] struck me as being an especially astute judge who gets why she's doing what she's doing."

Her work extends outside Hennepin County, too. For over 15 years, she has volunteered with The Advocates for Human Rights locally and overseas, including in Georgia, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Latvia. The nonprofit works to expose human rights violations, train people combating them and represents asylum-seekers.

Judge Kathryn Quaintance (far right) on a volunteer trip in 2015.
Quaintance (far right) on a volunteer trip in Lithuania in 2015.
Courtesy of Global Rights For Women

Quaintance has helped the group train judges, police and nonprofit workers on how to respond to different aspects of violence against women, said Robin Phillips, its executive director. Quaintance has also helped the organization with research on the legal context for the countries in which it operates.

Phillips said some people Quaintance trained were seeing the justice system in a new way: as a protector, rather than just enforcer of laws. Quaintance's people skills make her effective at helping people understand, Phillips said.

"She cares about people. I've seen her drill down and spend a lot of time with someone, even when she has to be exhausted, jetlagged, and she just gives people the time they need," Phillips said.

'Keep them out of my courtroom'

Quaintance's former role as a juvenile court judge gave her a seat on the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board, which works across local government groups to solve problems facing young people.

After Ann DeGroot started her new job as executive director for the organization in 2008, she asked Quaintance what she thought that job should really be.

"'Your job is to keep them out of my courtroom,'" DeGroot recalled. "And I have never forgotten that."

DeGroot said Quaintance's nearly eight years on Hennepin County's juvenile bench — including more than four as its chief judge — show she believed she was making a difference in children's lives.

"Sometimes people in those roles are kind of more interested in ... the work that they do and not necessarily the people who they served," DeGroot said. "But she was very, very focused on those kids."

Quaintance, a 63-year-old mother of two adult children, was key in reforming how information on children in the juvenile legal system is shared. She has issued several orders that allowed law enforcement, child protection, schools and the courts to share what they know about a juvenile.

The goal: Make it easier for people helping kids to get a fuller picture of their lives so they can understand what'd be beneficial for them.

One example came in 2010, when a Quaintance order allowed the Hennepin County attorney and juvenile probation offices to share citations and police reports on minors with restorative justice groups working to help them.

Typically, information on minors is kept private, even between government entities. DeGroot said Quaintance's advocacy for increased data sharing was "a tough position to take."

"She was a clear voice for saying, 'If we want to help these children, we need to know what's going on in their lives,'" Degroot said. "We can't just see them in one place or another place and think we can help them. They're part of a whole system."

'It's our job to set the tone in the courtroom'

Mohamed Noor and his attorneys are surrounded by media.
Noor and his attorneys are surrounded by media as they enter the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis on April 1.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Quaintance has presided over thousands of cases since she was appointed. They range from murder to criminal sexual conduct to assault to drugs cases.

Since 2009, she's been assigned 1,833 adult felony cases that resulted in a conviction, according to the limited data available from the state.

The Noor trial is perhaps Quaintance's most-watched case yet. The prosecution of police shootings are rare nationwide and nearly nonexistent in Minnesota. The Noor case is the second time a Minnesota officer has been charged with killing someone while on-duty.

From the outset, Quaintance understood the magnitude of the case.

"No criminal case has been the subject of greater pretrial publicity or received greater media interest" than Noor's, she wrote in a court order April 10.

Quaintance is trying to keep control of her courtroom, which can be difficult considering the case's tangle of complex legal issues and international attention.

Ruszczyk, the woman killed, is Australian. Her death at the hands of a police officer prompted foreign journalists to jockey for space in her courtroom. The calls for greater accountability over police shootings have also heightened attention.

Quaintance's demeanor from the bench shows she's working to maintain her authority over the courtroom. A lesson she said she learned early on in her judicial career.

"I think it's our job to set the tone in the courtroom," Quaintance said in the 2001 TV interview. "And the tone has to be respectful. We will only get the respect that we show others."

Quaintance has kept strict security protocols on the trial, even making observers turn off and check in their phones before approaching the courtroom.

Attorneys who have appeared before her say Quaintance is an efficient judge who knows how to manage proceedings well. And she expects attorneys to be prepared before they show up to court.

"You better know what you're doing because she will call you on it if not," said Minneapolis defense attorney Michael Colich.

She has called out attorneys in the Noor trial, once reprimanding defense attorneys for asking if Noor was a good officer.

Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor is reflected in a glass door
Noor is reflected in a glass door as he leaves the Hennepin County Government Center after the first day of his trial in Minneapolis on April 1.
Evan Frost | MPR News

But she's also shown care for the people involved. For example, near the end of a day of jury selection, she reminded potential jurors that this is a hard trial, telling them to rest, exercise, have some fun and clear their heads over a weekend break.

Quaintance's ability to balance a personal touch with strict adherence to the law make those who know her certain she's an ideal judge for the Noor trial.

"When I heard she was the one in the trial," said Phillips of The Advocates for Human Rights, "I felt confident that that she would be fair and that justice would be served."