WALKER -- Judge Michael J. Haas officially retired from his Ninth Judicial District Court seat in Cass County Dec. 31 after 26 years.
Like many retired judges, he already has spent most of the month of January on temporary assignment, filling his old seat while newly elected Judge David Harrington took judicial training.
Haas plans to accept more short-term, post-retirement assignments in the 17-county district. It won't be the same as sitting in the same county, sometimes seeing the same people year after year, however.
"I consider myself to be very lucky to do a job I enjoyed doing as long as I have," he said.
"I have met some nice people," he said, adding, "I will miss a lot of people I have worked with." These people include not only the probation officers, attorneys and court administration personnel, but also the people who came before him in criminal and civil court actions.
"It's surprising how decent most people are who come to court," he said. "They treat the (court ) system with respect." In 26 years, he has seen children and sometimes grandchildren of original offenders come before him in criminal court.
"You do develop a liking for the people," he said.
That probably is an understatement in Haas's case.
Several years ago, a single mother of three girls came before him when one of her daughters made a one-time shoplifting mistake. The woman was in tears as she brought her daughter before the court.
Judge Haas seemed so kind and reassuring, she said. He even smiled and winked as she left the courtroom, she said, adding, "He had such beautiful eyes."
A while later, this woman and the judge each had had a minor explosion in their homes and found themselves in the same aisle at Bieloh's Family Foods in Walker searching for Murphy's Oil to clean their homes.
The judge and this woman developed a friendship from that second meeting. She has been his wife, Kay, for several years now and still says he has the most beautiful eyes of anyone she knows.
Haas grew up on a farm outside Lamberton, a southwestern Minnesota town in Redwood County. The population still is under 1,000.
One of his closest childhood friends was the son of an attorney there. Mr. Fillenworth did such kind things for so many people in the community, Haas said, including for Haas's own grandmother who lived alone near New Ulm.
After high school, Haas paid for most of his undergraduate education at St. John's University in Collegeville by raising capons on his family's farm summers. His admiration for his friend's father led him to pursue a law degree.
Haas worked his way through University of Minnesota Law School by working in a law firm, then for Blue Cross MII, the firm preceding Blue Cross/Blue Shield.
It was in the early days of computers, he said. Blue Cross had hired a programmer to set up Minnesota's Medicare program. The man failed to produce much, so Haas found himself assigned to interpret Medicare rules for the program and to call hospitals to try to tactfully explain why they had not received timely Medicare payments under then-new program.
Fresh out of law school, Haas decided to look for a job somewhere in an area where he could hunt and fish.
He ended up in Cloquet with the law firm of Yetka and Newby. Lawrence Yetka became a Minnesota Supreme Court justice, so Haas feels he was lucky to train under a talented attorney.
While living farther north, Haas searched the area and decided the Bemidji, Park Rapids, Walker areas looked most appealing.
So, his next job was with John Plattner's law firm in Walker. Plattner also was county attorney at the time, so Haas served as assistant county attorney from 1972 to 1976.
Gov. Wendell Anderson then appointed Haas to his district court seat.
When he took his new judicial seat, Haas was surprised to find he actually had less power in some ways as judge than he had had in the county attorney's office.
"We (as judges) really didn't have any ability to go out and do something," Haas said. "We have to wait until a case in brought in (to court). The county attorney really has more ability to do something about things."
Since Haas became judge, technology has changed the courts. Everything was typed by hand when he started. If Haas changed a court order, his court reporter had to retype the whole order. Often the two stayed till 7 or 8 p.m. at night. Sometimes, Haas slept in his office overnight, because his day ran so long.
Today, changes are quick and easy on computer. Most judges rely on a law clerk to do their research today and to write many of their opinions. Court reporter notes during hearings come up on a computer screen instantly before the judge as hearings progress, Haas said.
On the down side, there are way too many cases to give the individual time judges used to devote to each case. There isn't enough time to think, he said.
There not only are more cases, but more hearings per case. The juvenile caseload has snowballed, Haas said. Life has generally gotten more complicated.
He also thinks laws are enforced more than they used to be. Citizen expectations that somebody ought to solve their problems have increased, he added.
"Years ago, people solved more of their own problems," Haas said.
There used to be social pressure to get an education, set goals and go for it, he said. People give up on goals so easily today in Haas's view. There are not enough expectations people can do well. There is not enough optimism, he said.
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