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From apples to appeals

By Amelia Schoeneman '12
March 26, 2012

Judge John Rodenberg '78 recently became the latest in a legacy of Oles who have been appointed to serve on the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

In appointing Rodenberg, Governor Mark Dayton praised the judge's "proven commitment to public service" and "unique perspective." Rodenberg has gained that perspective through a wide range of interests beyond the bench that include volunteering, civic involvement, and even membership in the Minnesota Apple Growers Association.

John Rodenberg '78 takes the oath for his new position on the Minnesota Court of Appeals while his wife, Dianne Bagby Rodenberg '80, holds a Bible. Photo by Janet Marshall.

Since the appointment of James Harten '57 in 1992, an Ole has always filled a seat on the bench as one of the court's 19 judges. Sam Hanson '61 followed Harten in 2000. Chief Judge Matthew Johnson '85 and David Minge '64 are both currently serving on the court with Rodenberg.
Rodenberg, who lives in New Ulm, was appointed to the Fifth Judicial District Bench in southwest Minnesota in 2000. Previously, he practiced law with Berens, Rodenberg & O'Connor, a private practice law firm, and served as a part-time assistant Brown County attorney. He was the most recent vice chair of the Minnesota Judicial Council and has filled advisory positions with the Minnesota Drug Court and Minnesota Children's Justice Initiatives.

In addition to the apple hobby, this Renaissance man has served on church committees, chaired the New Ulm Police Commission, coached hockey, and led a youth baseball association.

We asked Rodenberg to take a few minutes between hearing arguments to share what it's like balancing apple growing and volunteering with his new position, and why so many other St. Olaf alumni have served on the Court of Appeals.

With two other Oles currently serving on the court of appeals, do the three of you find yourselves reminiscing about the Hill between cases?
I really haven't had time to do much in the line of reminiscing. I have been visiting quite a bit with Chief Judge Johnson, but mostly about such things as which office suite will be mine, hiring of law clerks, arriving at an investiture date and planning the ceremony, and understanding the flow of cases through my chambers.

Honors like the Rosalie E. Wahl Judicial Award of Excellence, service as vice-chair of the Minnesota Judicial Council, and being named a Minnesota "Superlawyer" make you a unique candidate for the court of appeals. What's the key to your judicial philosophy?
I don't know that I have a "judicial philosophy" as much an understanding of a judge's role in the justice system. The judiciary is the interface between the law and the people. As we ensure that the people understand the law, it is every bit as important that judges ensure the law understands the people.  

How do you balance everything between the courtroom, volunteer work, hobbies, and home?
Doing a variety of activities is energizing. If I were to spend all my time reading law books and thinking only about the law, I wouldn't be a very motivated judge.

What TV courtroom drama really gets the details right?
The only legal show I have watched in recent years was Boston Legal, but not because the details were right. When I watch TV, I try to watch something wholly unrelated to my work.

Do you have a favorite type of case? How about least favorite?
Throughout 11-plus years as a district court judge, I have tried my best to remember that no matter what type of case I am hearing, that case is the most important one in the entire world to the people before the court.

It seems Oles have a pretty good chance of being appointed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Any words of wisdom for aspiring judges and lawyers?
The Minnesota Court of Appeals didn't even exist when I was attending St. Olaf and I didn't even plan on going to law school until very late in my St. Olaf career. My personal lesson is that a liberal arts education will benefit students in ways they can't possibly realize. St. Olaf equipped me to succeed in law school and beyond in ways I could never have fathomed.

We just have to ask: Honeycrisp or SweeTango?

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-786-3315 or