When Jeremy Clinefelter graduated Hamline University School of Law in 2002, he didn’t foresee being appointed as a judge someday. “I don’t think you ever see yourself becoming a judge because the spots themselves are limited,” he said. Twenty years after beginning his career in law, though, he did just that.
Clinefelter worked as a volunteer law clerk for several months after becoming licensed, and then began working in the Mower County attorney’s office in 2003. He stayed there for 13 years before leaving for the Donnelly Law Office in Austin, where he worked as an attorney. During that time, he also held a part-time public defender contract with Freeborn County. In 2021, he left the law office and took on the job of managing attorney for the Owatonna Public Defenders office, covering the counties of Rice, Waseca, Steele, Mower, and Freeborn in the third judicial district of southeast Minnesota. While there, he was in charge of around 25 attorneys plus the rest of the staff for those counties. “That office is busier than even the Rochester office,” Clinefelter said.
Starting in 2010, Clinefelter threw his hat in the ring five different times for judge appointments, going through the lengthy application process each time that started in the judicial system going all the way up to the governor’s office. “Numerous high quality attorneys are seeking those spots,” he said. “You really learn how difficult it is.” Clinefelter was a finalist for a vacancy in Mower County last summer, which meant that he was one of three applicants who were sent on to the governor by the commission. He wasn’t selected though, so when the Fillmore County seat opened up, he applied for it, noting that it was only one county away from the one he lives in. Clinefelter was prepared to go back to working at the Donnelly Law Office in a different capacity if he wasn’t selected this time, but to his surprise, Governor Walz decided to appoint him as the new Fillmore County Judge.
The State of Minnesota requires judges to retire when they turn 70, so Fillmore County Judge Matthew Opat officially retired on November 30, 2022. Opat had been the judge since 2013, retiring with nine years and a lot of memories under his belt. Normally, the incoming judge would be sworn in before the outgoing one’s last day, but due to the election involving Governor Walz, Clinefelter’s swearing in had to be postponed from October until December. On the last day of a judge’s conference on December 7, Clinefelter was informally sworn in in a hallway of the hotel where the conference was taking place. His first day on the bench in Fillmore County was on January 3, 2023. In addition to the postponement, Clinefelter’s investiture also had to wait. Normally, the ceremony to formally install him as judge would have taken place during his swearing in, but the swearing in was informal and quick, so the investiture had to wait until January 20. “Usually that would be the first day on the job, but due to the circumstances, we did it kind of backwards,” Clinefelter commented. “It was a very nice ceremony. My friends and family really enjoyed it.”
Clinefelter has been getting to know the court administration and clerks at Fillmore County since his swearing in. “The people here are fantastic,” he said. “They are very experienced.” Most of all though, he’s thankful for former Judge Opat’s advice and help as he takes on this new job. “The learning curve is significant,” he explained, “He (Opat) is extremely knowledgeable and extremely dedicated to Fillmore County because he cares so much for the community. He has been extremely gracious with his time and advice.” Fillmore County is a one-judge county, meaning that there aren’t other judges in the same courthouse from whom to seek assistance and advice. Four other counties in southeastern Minnesota are also in the same boat with one judge, so they make it a point to be available for advice and to cover for each other if someone is unavailable. “That’s a very nice resource,” Clinefelter commented.
As part of Clinefelter’s position, he also will spend over 50 days a year at the Winona County courthouse since Fillmore County isn’t considered a full caseload. “While I am the Fillmore County judge and my first priority is to Fillmore County, I do have that responsibility towards the district at large,” he said.
Clinefelter is enjoying working in Fillmore County. He and his wife Julie, the library director of the Austin Public Library, and their three children live in Austin, but have spent a lot of time in Fillmore County over the years, enjoying the state parks, scenery, and other things the area has to offer. “I grew up in a small town the size of Preston in Iowa. To be here, it reminds me of where I grew up in the sense that everyone knows each other,” he said.