VIRGINIA — Joe Leinonen used to say that only two people believed in him during his battle with alcoholism: his grandfather and Sixth Judicial District Judge Gary J. Pagliaccetti.
As his sister, Kelly Lind, tells it, the judge sentenced Leinonen amid his substance abuse struggles but told her brother he was a good man.
The words stuck with Leinonen until his death at the age of 48 last November. But they remained on the minds of the rest of his family. So, when Lind recently met the judge for the first time, she was able to share the impact his words had on her late brother.
“You never know when you’re going to have an impact on a person,” Lind said in a phone interview. She is the public health nursing supervisor with the St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services department and is helping lead the development of a new treatment court. “Judge Pagliaccetti has been a pioneer on this.”
That public health approach in the county court system is catching on at the same Pagliaccetti is leaving the bench, retiring after 30 years of serving the district. His last day is Friday and will be replaced by attorney Andrew Peterson later this month.
His departure, said four other judges who consider Pagliaccetti a mainstay and mentor, will leave a hole in the District Courthouse in Virginia. Their stories about his career, fairness, demeanor and compassion extended into their recollection of the last three decades, each with a different experience of working with Pagliaccetti.
“He exemplifies what it means to be a judge in a small rural community,” said Appellate Court Judge James B. Florey, who was recently appointed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals from the Virginia bench. “We won’t know the impact yet, but I can’t highlight enough that we were lucky to have him.”
A family man
It’s about 2 p.m. on a late September day in Pagliaccetti’s chambers at the Virginia Courthouse. He’s started taking a few items here and there home so his office isn’t bare for the final week. His baseball books are gone, but spanning the walls is an homage to America’s Pastime — a game rooted in his own family’s story.
His grandfather immigrated from Italy and adopted baseball, specifically the New York Yankees and their own Italian heritage with names like Joe DiMaggio and Phil Rizzuto. Pagliaccetti found the game with the hometown Minnesota Twins and hall of famer Harmon Killebrew in the 1960s.
“I can still remember him sitting in the backyard at their house and listening to the baseball game on the radio,” Pagliaccetti recalled. “I knew all the statistics — how many home runs [Killebrew] had and all that stuff. He’d look at me and say, ‘He’s no DiMaggio.’”
In the same way family drew him to baseball, it’s also family drawing him from the bench.
His wife currently helps with daycare for three of their six grandchildren three times a week, while also taking care of their disabled daughter. Calling the choice to retire a family decision that came at the right time, with pension and healthcare plans figured out, and his wife due for a shoulder replacement in the coming months.
“She’s made so many sacrifices over the years and given so much, it’s time for me to go home and give back to her a little bit,” Pagliaccetti said. “I tease that I’m going to be working a new job at the Pagliaccetti Day Care and Rehabilitation Center.”
As for traveling the world and the other cliches of retirement, those are going to have to wait as he lets his new normal sink in.
“But other than that, it’s going to be just wake and say, ‘What should we do today?”
Lessons from the bench, and Daniel Tiger
Pagliaccetti was first appointed on July 1, 1989 by then Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich and has held the seat ever since.
Prior to the bench, he graduated from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. in 1976 and Hamline University School of Law in 1979. From there he worked as a staff attorney for the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office until 1983, before joining a private practice, working as an assistant public defender from 1987-89.
Among his judicial experiences, Pagliaccetti was the chief judge for the Sixth Judicial District from 2000-04 and twice the assistant chief judge from 1996-2000 and 2012-16.
Some of his early lessons on the bench came from his predecessor Judge Mitchell A. Dubow along with his friend in the current U.S. District Judge Donovan W. Frank. Both judges taught him about respecting the position and respecting the people, and remembering that all cases matter.
“Every case is the most important case before you,” Pagliaccetti said. “Respect the position, respect the people and everything else will come along.”
They also impressed on him to continue to do the right thing, advice that helped guide him through the harder cases and harsher sentences. It’s easy, Pagliaccetti said, especially as a new judge to question why those decisions are placed in a person’s hands. But, he added, someone has to make them and judges should make sure to do their best in every decision.
“Make sure that as far as you’re concerned, you’re doing the right thing, and it’s tough — cases are tough,” he said. “When it’s not hard to sit out there and pass a sentence on somebody, it’s time to look for something else to do. It should be hard.”
Now, Pagliaccetti has had the opportunity to teach new judges lessons from the bench through an ethics orientation. He used to give advice to avoid arguments in the courtroom or try to convince people that they’re wrong.
Six grandchildren later, Pagliaccetti has adopted some new words for judges to live by on the bench. It isn’t Socrates, he admits, but Daniel Tiger, the animated spin-off of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood does the trick in about 10 words.
“When you feel you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four.”
Courts take a new approach
One of the biggest changes in the court system over Pagliaccetti’s time on the bench has been the district’s evolving approach to handling cases of substance abuse. He used to see a majority of alcohol and marijuana-related cases go through the system in his early years as a prosecutor. But then in the 1990s and 2000s, methamphetamine took hold of the region, followed by heroin and most recently opioids.
“I used to say that most of what we do here at the courthouse, no matter which area it falls within, you can lift up the page and generally you’ll see that there’s drugs or alcohol somehow intertwined,” the judge said. “When you’re dealing with family issues and criminal issues, there’s generally some of that involved in it.”
The story from there is well-known across the Range at this point as the issues led to more children in protective services and more families separated by drugs and alcohol, those numbers soaring in recent years as the opioid epidemic ravaged the region.
That narrative is something Pagliaccetti and Lind, the county public health nurse supervisor, are trying to change with a new approach focused on the underlying issues of substance abuse and trauma. It has helped to lead the county to create drug and alcohol treatment courts. Lind’s latest effort involves spearheading an Iron Range Safe Babies court that focuses on trauma-informed treatment for parents and children aged 0-3 years old, which Pagliaccetti and the other judges have have been instrumental in developing through their support.
“We’ve kind of had to revamp the way we look at things over the years,” Pagliaccetti said. “Drug court was not in existence when I started as a prosecutor or defense lawyer and, ultimately, as a judge.”
He said the courts are trying to stay more involved now rather than sentencing individuals to jail and prison or merely sending them on their way to take care of themselves. It’s the new approach Lind says Pagliaccetti was at the forefront of on the Range, and initiatives Judge Michelle M. Anderson and Judge Robert C. Friday are currently undertaking.
“I do feel like the system failed my brother, and that’s part of why I’m so passionate,” Lind said. “It’s no one person’s fault that we have not figured this out, but that we all need to work together and this trauma-informed approach is starting to take hold.”
Honoring ‘Judge P.’
Frank, the federal judge, went to law school and worked in the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office beside Pagliaccetti before they became judges together with Florey, a former district court judge in Virginia.
He remembers Pagliaccetti as a caring and compassionate judge who sought equal justice.. He recalled numerous times that he was approached about elevating Pagliaccetti to a magistrate or appellate position, but cautioned that the judge would be hard to recruit because he loved being a district court judge.
Frank was right every time.
“I’m old fashioned and believe you have an obligation, especially as a judge, to set the example for everyone the way you live your life and treat people,” he said. “Gary set that perfect example. He’s that person. It was a pleasure to serve with him.”
Florey interacted with Pagliaccetti in different situations: prosecutor-defense attorney, prosecutor-judge and finally as two judges in the district.
He called the judge a close friend with a name that extends beyond the Range.
“His reputation isn’t just known locally, but as one of the state’s premier district court judges.”
Sixth District Chief Judge Sally L. Tarnowski said his retirement will mean substantial change for the district, noting a lengthy and distinguished career.
“It will be very strange not to have Gary Pagliaccetti on the bench in Virginia,” she said. “We’re going to miss his wisdom.”
Anderson, the newest judge in Virginia who was appointed to replace Florey in 2017, was an intern and former clerk for Pagliaccetti, who later prosecuted cases in front of the judge.
She credits him for having the biggest impact on her career.
“He was a steady influence in our system,” she said. “He is the epitome of what you would want in a judge, and makes me proud to be a judge for who he is.”
Peterson, the incoming judge, called him one of the best judges in the state, who has treated people fairly, with a calm demeanor, throughout his career.
“I will never be able to fill his shoes, but I will do my best every day to make sure all people receive equal justice under the law.”