Judge Rachel Hughey: The Opportunity to Serve

Rachel C. Hughey
2024 Feature Nominations

Attorney at Law Magazine Minnesota sat down with the newly appointed Judge Rachel Hughey of Minnesota’s Fourth Judicial District Court to discuss this transition in her career. 

AALM: What was your first reaction when you learned about your appointment?

RH: When I learned that Governor Walz and Lieutenant Governor Flanagan had appointed me to replace the Honorable Margaret A. Daly, I was absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to serve the people of Hennepin County in this way.

AALM: What are you most looking forward to in your new role on the bench?

RH: I am very excited to learn new things. My practice has been primarily focused on complex commercial litigation, but state court judges are not so specialized. I look forward to learning new areas of law, and particularly learning from my colleagues.

AALM: What judges and justices do you most admire? Why? What traits of theirs do you hope to emulate?

RH: I have been extremely lucky to see and get to know many excellent judges during my career.

While a student at the University of Minnesota Law School, I was given the opportunity to extern for Judge James Rosenbaum. I saw him try a number of cases and was repeatedly struck by his ability to firmly control a courtroom while making sure the participants were treated with respect and understood the proceedings taking place. Judge Rosenbaum’s commitment to ensuring a fair process is a trait that I admire and hope to emulate.

While in law school, I also had good fortune to serve with Mary Vasaly as her student legal writing instructor. At that time, she was a partner at a law firm, and she was a mother, but she still found the time to be extremely involved in the community, teaching legal writing, serving on the board of VLN, and founding the Infinity Project, among other things. Before and after she joined the Hennepin County bench, she modeled how one can lead a life of purpose and service to the community. Judge Vasaly’s commitment to the community is a trait that I admire and hope to emulate.

Finally, early in my legal career, I was selected to serve as a law clerk to the Honorable Alvin Schall, a judge on the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals. I learned so much about running a chambers, working well with staff and colleagues, and doing the hard work to get to the right answer. But the biggest lesson I learned from Judge Schall was that while the work you do is very important, that does not make YOU any more important than anyone else. Judge Schall’s humility is a trait that I admire and hope to emulate.

From these and so many other experiences, I have seen really good judging modeled to me time and time again. I will rely on these examples to be the best possible public servant I can be.

AALM: Tell us about some of your mentors and the best lessons they taught you.

RH: The judges I talked about have also been long-time mentors to me, and each of them taught me that being a public servant often requires sacrifice, but it can be extremely rewarding and impactful. It was their example that encouraged me to pursue a path on the bench, and I will rely on the lessons they have taught me as I serve the community.

AALM: Tell us about your experience as a judicial clerk for the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals.

RH: I learned a lot. (Truly—I wrote a law review article about the lessons I learned: Effective Appellate Advocacy Before The Federal Circuit: A Former Law Clerk’s Perspective, 11 J. of Appellate Prac. and Pro. 401 (2010).) I think an appellate court clerkship is a great way to get a bird’s eye view of a large number of cases in a relatively short period of time. It’s good training for a trial attorney—and a trial court judge—because you know which errors are harmless, or within the court’s discretion, and which errors undermine the proceedings entirely. It was also a magical experience—I had the good fortune to get to know many smart and interesting people during my clerkship, and those friendships have continued to this day.

AALM: What do you think will be the biggest adjustment in your move to the bench? How are you seeking to meet those challenges?

RH: As I mentioned, I am very excited to learn new areas of law, but that will also be a big adjustment, particularly because I do not have significant criminal law experience. Prior to being appointed, I did what I could to educate myself about criminal law, including doing ride-alongs with a number of judges handling criminal matters, and taking on a pro bono criminal case. In addition, the court offers a robust training program and assigns new judges buddy judges, and my buddy judge has significant criminal experience. I am looking forward to learning from my colleagues as well, and I am confident that I will meet this challenge.

AALM: What are some issues facing the Minnesota judicial system that you believe need to be addressed? What is one actionable step you think can be achieved toward improvement?

RH: I think there are a number of issues facing the court. Perhaps the most pressing is the backlog of cases, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. I am excited to join the bench and use my energy and hard work to serve the people of Hennepin County and make sure they are receiving justice in a timely manner.

AALM: You’ve been very involved with the community. Which organization’s work did you feel most passionately about? Why?

RH: I have been involved with a number of organizations over the years, and I feel passionate about all of their good work, otherwise I would not be involved! One organization that I have been particularly proud of working with as a board member and pro bono volunteer is Volunteer Lawyers Network. I know many attorneys would like to get more involved in pro bono work, but do not know how or do not feel like they have the right skills to help. VLN helps to fill that gap, as it provides a wide range of training, mentoring, and volunteering opportunities. I think VLN provides a huge service to our community, and I am very proud of the work it has done and my small role in helping the organization to serve its mission of connecting Minnesotans experiencing poverty with pro bono representation.

AALM: How will you continue to be involved in the community?

RH: I expect to continue to be very involved in the community. I plan to remain an active board member of VLN and the Hennepin County Bar Association. I am also the current president of The Honorable Jimmie V. Reyna Intellectual Property American Inn of Court. I expect to continue speaking at CLEs as well—this fall I am interviewing Judge Reyna for a CLE presented by the Minnesota CLE Center. I also expect to continue to serve beyond the legal community. As an example, I am currently serving on a committee for Simpson Housing Services. I hope that my role as a Hennepin County judge provides me with additional opportunities to serve the people in our community in a variety of ways.

AALM: You worked on your firm’s Women’s Initiative. How do you think the legal industry can better foster women in law?

RH: I appreciate the acknowledgement that there continues to be barriers for women in the law. One thing that I think the legal industry can do (and has been doing) is to allow people to have more flexibility in terms of when and where they work, which I think is particularly helpful for parents, and even more so for mothers, as it is often women that take on more responsibility for childcare and household management. When we make changes that benefit women, I think often we see that those changes actually benefit all employees, and lead to increased job satisfaction and personal happiness, which is good for both employees and employers.

AALM: Looking back on your career so far, is there anything you’d change?

RH: There are certainly things I would do differently now, but I can honestly say I did my best at the time, and I learned something new from every single experience I have had, even the (really) bad ones. And all of my experiences have led me here. So, no, I wouldn’t change a thing.

AALM: Tell us about yourself outside the office. What do you do to unwind?

RH: I make it a priority to be physically active—it helps me to de-stress and clear my head. I run (I’m training for the Twin Cities marathon), bike (particularly on my Peloton!), swim, do yoga, and lift weights. I also love to read, although I don’t do it as much as I would like, and I have a long-time book club that focuses on the classics.

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