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Jeanne Sederberg, pioneering Duluth judge, dies at 96

Colleagues described the region's first female judge as a fair jurist who compassionately handled emotionally fraught family cases for more than two decades.

Judge Sederberg 1996.jpg
Judge Jeanne Sederberg, the first woman appointed to the bench in Northeastern Minnesota, liked to joke that she kept this crystal ball on her desk to guide her judicial decisions.
Bob King / 1996 file / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — When Jeanne Sederberg graduated from University of Minnesota Law School in 1952, she could count on one hand the number of fellow women in her class of 300.

Back in her hometown of Duluth, she was shunned by potential employers who did little to hide the sexist nature of the industry — one law firm reportedly telling her that "we would sooner throw the keys to this office in the lake than hire a woman here."

But Sederberg remained undeterred. She set up her own home-based private practice and earned a reputation as a skilled practitioner, eventually leading to her appointment as the first female district court judge in Northeastern Minnesota.

Sederberg was, by all measures, a pioneering figure in the local legal community — even if she tended to downplay the significance of her accomplishments.

"I don't think she ever would've described herself as (a trailblazer)," granddaughter Audrey Sederberg told the News Tribune. "She knew that was what she wanted to do, and nobody was going to get between her and that. The law firms that wouldn't give her a job — she was never bitter or angry about it. She was like, 'Oh, well, that's how people think, so I'll go do my own thing and figure it out."

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Jeanne Sederberg.jpg
Judge Jeanne Sederberg.
Contributed / Sederberg family

Sederberg, who handled family law cases in her 22 years on the bench, died Sunday at St. Luke's hospital. She was 96.

Colleagues said she leaves a legacy as a fair jurist who handled some of the most stressful cases to come through the St. Louis County Courthouse with grace and compassion.

"I thought of her as a mentor, because she made all of us better," said former Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Joanne Vavrosky, who was often the only other woman in the courtroom with Sederberg. "She was just very resilient. She was very professional. She was able to maintain that boundary and not display emotion. And she demanded a lot of respect from me and everybody else."

Sederberg spent 17 years in private practice and was among the first women to successfully gain a footing in the Duluth bar, handling real estate matters, probate and wills.

She was hired as a judicial officer for St. Louis County in 1974, assuming a caseload that included child protection and divorces, and she continued in that same role when Gov. Arne Carlson appointed her as a judge for the 6th Judicial District in 1992.

"She was thorough," said now-retired Judge Heather Sweetland. "I had a lot of respect for her. It was probably tough being the only woman on the bench, but she did it and did it well."

Jeanne Hubert was born in Duluth on July 30, 1926, and graduated from Central High School in 1944, continuing her education at Duluth Junior College. Family members said her father forbade his daughters from going to law school, so she initially moved to Chicago before gaining his blessing to enroll at the U of M in 1948.

She married Robert Sederberg Jr. in 1954 and the couple settled in Duluth in 1956, raising three children while Jeanne Sederberg continued her legal career.

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"There was maybe one or two women lawyers in town," said Fred Friedman, who long served as the region's chief public defender. "It was very much something unusual. Outside of big cities, there were no women lawyers. Rural America, that just didn't happen."

Sederberg's later work on the bench also included custody disputes and parent rights, nonpayment of support and adoptions. She admitted to the News Tribune in 1996 that her caseload sometimes led to sleepless nights, but she said she always enjoyed her job. She only retired because the state mandates it for judges when they turn 70.

When Michelle Anderson was sworn in, she made history as the first woman to serve as a district court judge on the Iron Range. But her selection hardly came as a surprise to the local legal community.

"All these years I pumped out the decisions, and I've lived with them," Sederberg said at the time. "It was problem solving. It's challenging and stimulating and you were doing something worthwhile, especially in helping and taking care of children."

Former St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin recalled that he also submitted an application for the district judgeship in 1992. He said he earned an interview with the selection commission but told members that Sederberg had earned the seat.

"One thing people really loved about her is that she was no frills," said Rubin, who also shares a relation to Sederberg through marriage. "She was to the point, all business. But she did it with such wisdom and grace and strength. ...

"Judges have such a profound impact on people's lives. I always consider the ripple effect of what people do. And she really did make a difference, because she handled family court matters, the most sensitive areas in the practice of law. She had tons of respect from those of us in the legal community," Rubin said.

Outside the courtroom, Sederberg was active in many other civic causes and showed few signs of slowing down in retirement. She served on the boards for the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, Marshall School and Northwood Children's Services. She also spent more than 20 years hearing disputes for the Housing and Redevelopment Authority of Duluth, finally calling it quits at age 92.

Friedman said many in the legal community last saw Sederberg in July 2021, when she was able to witness another historic milestone: the swearing-in of Shawn Pearson as the first Black judge in the 6th District.

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Sederberg's death came on her 68th wedding anniversary. She is survived by her husband, three children, eight grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and a sister.

"We were very proud of her," Audrey Sederberg said. "She instilled in us this idea of finding something that was meaningful to you and work that you love doing. I don't think I ever saw her not happy. When she would talk about her work, her eyes would just light up."

A funeral is planned for Thursday at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 1710 E. Superior St., Duluth, where Sederberg was a longtime member. Visitation is at 1 p.m., followed by services at 2 p.m.

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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