Chief Judge John R. Tunheim: The Bench Years

Chief Judge John R. Tunheim's induction

Chief Judge John R. Tunheim has served as chief judge of the District of Minnesota since 2015; his term as chief expires on July 1, 2022. This is the final installment of a three-part series about Chief Judge Tunheim’s life and career. View the first part of the series, “The Formative Years.”

On July 10, 1995, President William J. Clinton nominated John R. Tunheim to the federal judiciary on the recommendation of Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone. Although the process went relatively quickly—Tunheim was confirmed by the Senate on December 22, 1995 and took his oath of office seven days later, at the age of 42—his enthusiasm for the opportunity made the wait feel much longer. At the time of his confirmation, Tunheim was still serving as the chairman of the U.S. Assassination Records Review Board, and remains one of few officials to have served simultaneously in both the judicial and executive branches. 

Tunheim replaced Judge Donald D. Alsop on the bench, before whom Tunheim, as Minnesota’s chief deputy attorney general, had litigated—and occasionally lost—his biggest cases in federal court. Tunheim also recalls listening to discussions of Alsop’s judicial nomination as a college intern in the Office of Senator Hubert H. Humphrey. At the time, he had no idea that he would one day occupy Judge Alsop’s seat on the federal bench. In a recurring theme of Tunheim’s life and career, Judge Alsop became, and continues to be, a great mentor and close friend. Judge Alsop, adapting a quote from General George S. Patton, also provided Tunheim with a critical piece of advice that he brought to his judicial career: a good decision, made quickly and executed well, is far better than a first-class decision made long after it should have been.

This advice was essential for the newly minted Judge Tunheim, who confronted 75 fully briefed motions on his desk the day he started. Due to a shortage of judges, Tunheim had been put on the case assignment roster six months before his confirmation. It took quite a while to work down the backlog, but Judge Tunheim always approached his cases one at a time. Throughout his career, Judge Tunheim has never been overly concerned about the number of cases he has, many or few, he focused on getting each resolved as quickly and as fairly as possible. 

When Tunheim began his career in the federal judiciary, judges had much more discretion to assign cases, and he was given many difficult cases early on. One of the most memorable was Jensen v. Eveleth Taconite Co., the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit in the United States, which Judge Tunheim received on remand from the Eighth Circuit. Although the case had been going on for over a decade and Tunheim was unfamiliar with the voluminous record, the Eighth Circuit had ordered that the trial begin in 30 days, and Judge Tunheim took the mandate seriously. The case progressed through pretrial motions and voir dire. 

Just before Christmas of 1998, Judge Tunheim ordered the parties to a settlement conference. The defendant’s counsel had a holiday vacation planned and sent a newly hired woman as deputy counsel in his place. Judge Tunheim ordered defendant’s counsel to arrive early, knowing that the plaintiffs always arrived well before they were scheduled to appear, and the parties talked with each other as they waited for the conference to begin. In the new deputy counsel, the plaintiffs for the first time found someone on the defense side who would listen to their harrowing stories. The case settled very soon thereafter for $3.5 million. 

The case gained national notoriety as the basis of the book Class Action and inspiration for the fictionalized 2005 film “North Country.” Judge Tunheim offered to play the judge character in the film pro bono, but the casting team unfortunately hired an equity actor in his place. 

Judge Tunheim also presided over the 2016 case against Danny Heinrich for child pornography crimes, during which Heinrich confessed to the 1989 murder of Jacob Wetterling, closing a chapter on one of Minnesota’s most devastating crimes. The judge’s longest trial was the 2013 prosecution of members of the Native Mob, a regional gang, for violations of the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The six-week trial, which included only three of the 28 co-defendants, included testimony from dozens of witnesses. Judge Tunheim appreciated that the trial was helmed by outstanding attorneys for both the prosecution and defense. 

Throughout his career on the bench, Judge Tunheim has developed a judicial philosophy of praxis: if justice requires a certain result, he tries to get to that result consistent with precedent, and he is attentive to the impacts of the law and legal processes on the parties appearing before the court. 

Judge Tunheim greatly enjoys working with juries and witnessing the positive impact of jury service on people who may be otherwise unconnected with the law. Judge Tunheim has observed jurors recognizing—perhaps for the first time—that they play an integral role in the process, and he holds a firm belief that regular jury trials enhance civic education and respect for our legal system. It is unsurprising then that he laments the reduction in jury trials in recent years and the preference for private justice through arbitration. Judge Tunheim is a staunch believer that public justice produces better outcomes and strengthens our democratic institutions. 

Judge Tunheim’s ardent commitment to democratic governance also animates much of the work he does outside of the courtroom. He is involved in many organizations, including the American Bar Association’s Division of Government and Public Sector Lawyers and the Minnesota State Bar Association’s Public Law Section, both of which he cofounded. He served as chair of the board of regents for Concordia College and in leadership roles with the University of Minnesota Law School and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. In addition, he represents the Eighth Circuit district judges on the Judicial Conference and has served as president of the Norwegian-American Historical Association and as an advisor to the board of the Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights. 

The initiatives nearest to his heart, though, stem from his first trip to the crumbling Soviet Union as a State Department delegate in 1991. Since then, Judge Tunheim has traversed the globe to develop and support international rule of law programs. 

In 2000, he was in Siberia, conducting a seminar with Russian judges when he received a request from fellow District Court Judge Paul A. Magnuson, asking him to travel to Kosovo on behalf of the Judicial Conference Committee on International Judicial Relations. Judge Tunheim flew straight from Siberia into a fragile region still reeling from war. This trip was the beginning of his more than 20-year commitment to Kosovo. He has traveled to the country over 50 times, initially to support United Nations’ efforts to improve the legal system. In 2007 and 2008, Judge Tunheim was asked to assist Kosovo’s leaders in developing a constitution, much of which he drafted. At that time, Kosovo was still claimed by Serbia, which opposed Kosovo’s independence, and the constitutional project had to be completed quietly. Kosovo declared independence in February of 2008. Judge Tunheim was present in April of that year when the constitution was signed; it was ratified on June 15, 2008. 

Judge Tunheim has also made over 25 trips to Uzbekistan since 2000 and witnessed progressive efforts to strengthen the country’s independent judiciary. He has worked in Georgia, Russia, Montenegro, Jordan, Hungary, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Slovenia, North Macedonia, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Lithuania, Tunisia, China, Hong Kong, Croatia, Ukraine, and many other countries. Judge Tunheim has trained hundreds of judges, attorneys, and political leaders, served as an elections expert across the world, and supported the development of foreign bar associations. 

He is also a member of the board of directors of the CEELI Institute in Prague, a rule of law provider originally founded by the American Bar Association. In this capacity, he has worked with presidents and dignitaries, but he is most inspired by the young judges and emerging political leaders who are passionate about defeating corruption and building independent, democratic institutions in their countries. In the past year, democracy advocates have been greatly disheartened by developments in Russia and horrified by the unfolding war in Ukraine. Because of his work with young leaders, Judge Tunheim remains hopeful about the future. 

In his international and domestic judicial work, Judge Tunheim has been an eager student of the qualities that contribute to effective leadership. These lessons have directly informed his service as chief judge of the Federal District Court for the District of Minnesota, the position he accepted on July 1, 2015. Since that time, he has implemented significant policy changes, managed court operations through civil unrest stemming from the murder of George Floyd, and developed the court’s evolving response to the COVID-19 pandemic. During his tenure as chief judge, the roster of judges serving the District of Minnesota has changed dramatically: four new district court judges have been seated since 2015, with a fifth on the way, and many new magistrate judges have joined the ranks. 

As the captain of a ship navigating very turbulent waters, Chief Judge Tunheim has strived to establish strong collaborative relationships between judges, court staff, and other parties. These relationships have brought different interests and perspectives into the decision-making process. Chief Judge Tunheim notes that a good leader occasionally has to “challenge the process.” To do so effectively, “you have to work very hard to continuously build trust and respect in the work that you do.” 

The initiative he’s most proud of from his time as chief judge is the development of the Minneapolis and St. Paul federal courthouses’ Justice and Democracy Centers, which will focus on youth education and feature exhibits on the United States Constitution, landmark cases, judicial independence, and more. Chief Judge Tunheim sees the centers as a way to develop engaged young citizens and inspire future generations of leaders in the legal field. 

After July 1, when he steps down as chief judge, he will focus even more of his time on building the centers as sustainable and integral institutions for civic education in the region. He also plans to return to the projects that have been most meaningful to him throughout his life—he recently completed an update to “A Scandinavian Saga,” the book derived from his college senior thesis about the history of his hometown, and he is entertaining ideas for various other books. As soon as he is able, he will return to Kosovo and Uzbekistan and continue in earnest his training of young judges in the U.S. and abroad. 

As he reflects on his judicial career, Tunheim feels especially indebted to his exceptional staff and more than 50 law clerks that have been by his side since he joined the federal bench. As a recent clerk for Chief Judge Tunheim, I can attest to his strong commitment to sustaining relationships with those who have worked with him and supporting young attorneys. Judge Tunheim’s relationship with the mentors who impacted his life and career is a common theme throughout this series. For many alumni of his chambers—myself included—he is the mentor that has shaped our lives and trajectories. As he ends his term as chief judge of the federal district court for the District of Minnesota, Chief Judge Tunheim is still the kid who “couldn’t wait to start school and didn’t want it to end,” driven onward by curiosity, rooted to history, and seeking inspiration wherever he can find it. 

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