Pathways to the Bench: Judge Donovan Frank

Pathways to the Bench: Judge Donovan Frank

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The following program was produced by
the United States courts. Senior United States District Court Judge Donovan
Frank, presides over a mix of civil and criminal cases in St. Paul Minnesota. As
a boy he learned the virtues of hard work and treating everyone with
compassion and respect, regardless of their background. Throughout his legal
career, judge Frank, has been attuned to the needs of people with disabilities,
and committed to ensuring everyone has equal access to justice. As a Minnesota
state judge, he served on task forces to address violence against women and
racial bias. Judge Frank is serving justice in his courtroom one day at a
time. Believe in yourself and don’t let
anybody tell you differently, and be the person that you want to be. Donovan
Frank’s pathway to the federal bench starts in Spring Valley Minnesota,
population 2479. As a boy he might have dreamed of working the land like his
father, who dropped out of school in the eighth grade to help on the family farm.
His father owned a TV and appliance store and always extended a helping hand
to others in the community and in his own family. My dad had a developmentally
disabled cousin named Dutch. He said Donovan, he has the same hopes and dreams
as you do we’re going to include him in everything that we do. I think that had a
much bigger effect on me than I understood it. In high school Frank’s
teacher thought he was vocational school material, but Frank applied to Luther
College, a competitive liberal arts school in Iowa, and he got in. My parents
were there all the way saying you can do this. I graduated from high school 1969.
Well those were kind of some really big-time protest days. Both because of
the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam protests. I started reading these things and said:
I’ve decided I think I want to be a lawyer, and I think it’s called a save
the world complex. At Luther College, Frank was active in student government.
During his senior year in 1973, he helped lead the takeover of the school
administration building. We were protesting for more students and African
American involvement. The newspaper articles and TV said: “they seized the
building for two days but they didn’t damage anything and they cleaned up
before they left.” Judge Frank’s worldview expanded when he spent his junior year
abroad, studying in England. He and his Luther college girlfriend, Cathy, got
married after graduation. Frank enrolled in law school at Hamlin
University in St. Paul. He excelled academically, but substance abuse
threatened to derail his marriage and his dream of becoming a lawyer. I often
tell people today: I drank more in my first 26-27 years than most people drink in her
whole life. When I came back from my junior year
abroad, even though I did well, I didn’t see that I had any problem. But there was
a problem. Cathy Frank forced the issue and left home to live with her sister. It
was only then that Frank reached out to a pastor, who was a family friend, for
help. 24 hours later he was in treatment.
Donovan and Cathy Frank have been together now for more than 40 years
and judge Frank has been sober all that time. I really feel that even though I’m
lucky enough to have to be straight and sober and taking things a day at a time,
I do not take it for granted. I think it made me a better person. It made
me a better lawyer, better judge. In 1977, Frank graduated from law school third in
his class, and took a job as a prosecutor in northern Minnesota. In 1985, at the age
of 32, he became a state court judge. When his father arrived at the swearing-in
ceremony, he pulled his son aside to have a private moment with him. My dad was
still alive and he read the oath. He read my oath I was going to take. And
he said: you make a promise in a few minutes in this oath, to treat everybody
with kindness, respect, and equality; no matter what. I said Dad, that is my oath,
and that is how you raised me. Judge Frank has always given back to his
community. As a mentor for school children and people with special needs,
and as a voice for access to better treatment for drug and alcohol
dependency. He took the federal bench in 1998. Judge Frank continued to educate
the legal community about people with disabilities, ensuring that everyone has
equal access to justice. What I learned as a young child, no matter what somebody’s
background is, what their intelligence is, what their education or lack thereof is,
no matter what people can tell when you care and you’re listening. Once in a
6-day federal civil case, heavy in documents, Judge Frank allowed a blind
woman in the jury pool to serve. When the trial is over you bring the jury back to
your chambers and ask them if they have any questions and chat with them and
thank them; the foreperson said: Judge Frank, we can’t believe that the rules
allowed you to permit a blind person to sit on our jury.
We were so wrong. She saw things judge, we didn’t see. We were a better jury with
her, than without her. We had no idea we were caring around these stereotypes all
these years. I’m a pretty average bloke, each of us in
life has a lot in common. When you extend that helping hand an unintended benefit
perhaps is that you set examples for other people, and you can see the shock
and some people’s face. If you could read their mind they’d be saying: he’s a
federal judge and he grew up there and had a dad with an eighth grade education.
And so maybe we should listen to him after all. Donovan Frank has now been on the
federal bench for more than 20 years. In 2016 he became a Senior Judge in the
District of Minnesota. His courtroom in St. Paul is just a little more than 100
miles away from where he grew up in Spring Valley, and he still carries its
small-town values with him every day.

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