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Judge Benson retires

Fri, Mar 8th, 2013
Posted in All Features

Judge Robert R. Benson stands before an empty seat he has occupied in the Fillmore County District Court for more than 16 years. His last day on the job will be March 31, 2013. Photo by Jason Sethre

For many of us, when we are fresh out of high school we don’t know exactly what we want to do for the rest of our life. But, often it finds us. That was the case for the Honorable Judge Robert R. Benson, as well.

Since 1997, the Honorable Judge Robert R. Benson has served Fillmore County, while also serving alongside judges from 10 other counties – Dodge, Freeborn, Houston, Mower, Olmsted, Rice, Steele, Wabasha, Waseca, and Winona – all in the Third Judicial District. There are 289 judges serving in 10 districts in the state of Minnesota.

Effective April 1, 2013, the Commission of Judicial Selection will be looking for a replacement for Judge Robert R. Benson. His last day on the job will be March 31, 2013, as he retires from his seat on the bench, hangs up his black robe, and lays his gavel down one last time.

While the majority of Benson’s career has been spent in a courtroom, he actually had other aspirations when he entered college at Augsburg back in 1963. He initially took an interest in Pre-medical, considering the possibilities of becoming a doctor. And, then he took a class on constitutional law, which triggered an interest in law. From that point forward, his interest in law became his primary focus, and he changed his major to political science, graduating from Augsburg in 1967.

Following graduation from Augsburg, Benson successfully passed the Law School Admission Test to get into William-Mitchell College of Law, one of only two law schools in the state of Minnesota at that time. In 1971, he graduated from William-Mitchell College of Law and passed the State Bar Examination to become a lawyer in the state of Minnesota.

As he reflects upon his career, he had a lot of different jobs that he enjoyed along the way. While going to college, he worked at a gas station, for Frost Paint & Oil, and the Northern Pacific Railroad. And, while attending college and law school, he worked for the Veteran’s Administration as an Adjudicator Legal Specialist from 1967 to 1972.

Moving to Preston

After completing law school and passing the State Bar Examination, Benson continued to work for the Veteran’s Administration along with his own private law practice. At that time, while living in St. Paul, Bob and his wife Sandy became the parents of their first child, Rebekah, born in 1971. Bob kept thinking about where they should be raising their family, and he thought about what it was like to go back and visit his uncle and grandfather on their family farm in Owatonna. While Bob graduated from Brooklyn Center High School, he was originally born in Owatonna, so he had roots from the farm.

Meanwhile, Sandy was born and raised in the Minneapolis area. So, Bob kept his eyes open for opportunities in which his personal and professional aspirations might intersect.

And, along came an opening in Fillmore County for an attorney in Preston, Minn. While Bob had never been to Preston before, he made the trek down to this area and immediately fell in love. He knew that it would be a tough sell to get Sandy, the city girl, to move to a smaller community, so he told her he wanted to take her on a tour of the area. They traveled down to Preston, and then along Highway 16 through Lanesboro and all the way to Rushford, peering up at the bluffs and downward at the winding river. Sandy fell in love with the area, as well. Their destiny became clear, and Preston would become their home.

Bob applied for a position with David Joerg Law Office, and began working for Joerg in 1972. In 1974, while his son, Matthew, was on his way into this world, Bob ran for the part-time Fillmore County Attorney position and he won. Benson served as the Fillmore County Attorney from 1974 until he was named Judge in 1997.

During His Service

When asked what was different about today’s issues in the courtroom he deals with versus the way things were when he first started, he said they still see many of the same types of cases year after year. However, Fillmore County tends to see increases and decreases in the volume of cases and that volume is never predictable.

Probably the most challenging part of his job as Judge related to cases involving the children. He recalled about 15 years ago when a father had been charged with the murder of his three-year-old son. During that trial, he thought about his own grandson, who was exactly the same age. Benson said that case, which happened in Houston County but was moved to Fillmore County, was emotional for everyone involved.

Year after year, Benson saw how children were affected by decisions he would have to make. He had difficult decisions, but he wanted to make sure they were always in the best interest of those children. And, at night when he was at home, he thought about those decisions and hoped things would turn out for the best.

And, while being a judge meant that he had to make decisions that would not always be well-received from those who were subject to consequences of their actions, he did find a measure of gratitude when he found out he made a difference in someone’s life. “Sometimes you crafted solutions that worked out good. This is when you saw that you made a difference,” shared Benson.

During his service as District Judge for Fillmore County, he has faced three elections, 1996, 2002 and 2008, and was elected each time. In 2008, Benson was named “Judge of the Year” from the Minnesota District Judges Association, bestowed the “Award For Exemplary Service.”

In January 2009, the Honorable Judge Robert R. Benson was selected to be the Chief Judge of the Third Judicial District, consisting of the 11 counties in Southeast Minnesota. For that additional role, his responsibilities included managing the resources as efficiently as possible for the Third Judicial District. In January 2013, Judge Jeff Thompson of Winona County District Court, was selected to be named Chief Judge for the Third Judicial District taking over for the retiring Judge Benson.

After Retirement

Now approaching his 68th birthday, Benson’s retirement comes with a bit of mixed emotions. He will miss being a part of all that is involved in his daily responsibilities. But, most importantly, he said, “I’ve been really, really lucky to work with wonderful people all these years. I’ve been lucky to work with great people. It’s been a really good career!”

According to Bob, his wife of 45 years, Sandy, is looking forward to spending more time with him. His long days, usually ranging around 11 to 12 hours per day, take time away from family.

While Bob feels that he is not old enough to retire, he is also looking forward to doing the things he hasn’t been able to do for a long time.

He enjoys cooking, fishing, hunting, woodworking and reading. And, Bob and Sandy have a piece of land outside of Preston in which they maintain food plots for deer and manage native grasses and wildflowers.

Bob will have plenty to keep him busy, and that is his plan.

Our Next Judge

Without a doubt, Judge Benson’s role in Fillmore County and this corner of the state of Minnesota has been significant. He has presided over the Fillmore County District Court for well over 16 years.

While Fillmore County has grown accustomed to the household name of Judge Benson, seeing his name as the oversight of our judicial system in this area in the Fillmore County Court Reports throughout the pages of the Fillmore County Journal, there will be a new household name in the near future.

The Commission of Judicial Selection is currently accepting applications for Judge Benson’s position, and will accept them until the close of business on Monday, March 25, 2013. Interviews are scheduled to be held on Tuesday, April 9, 2013, at the Fillmore County Courthouse in Preston, Minn.

From those interviews, the top three candidates will be selected, and their names will be made available to the public. Those three candidates will then endure an interview process with Governor Mark Dayton, and he will ultimately have the final decision on the next Judge of the Fillmore County District Court.

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