Washington County’s first Black judge hopes to instill trust in justice

Judge Juanita Freeman // Submitted photo

Judge Juanita Freeman is making more than history. As Washington County’s first Black judge, she is positioning herself to bring trust to the judicial system. Being the first, though, was a bit surprising. “I was interested at that barrier just being broken in 2018,” said Freeman.

Governor Mark Dayton appointed her to the position last October; she was sworn in in late November. A few weeks later, she took a break from an annual judge conference at the Mall of America Radisson to talk with the MSR about her new gig.

Though a newbie at the conference, Freeman looked perfectly comfortable, dressed down in a cozy settle-in-to-study zip-up hoodie.

“It’s interesting around judges I appeared in front of,” said Freeman of the conference. “Now they are my colleagues.”

Through framed, rectangle glasses, she speaks with a soft, steady voice and smiles often, but slowly. She embodies laser focus. Achieving her historic appointment before turning 40, Freeman looks at Washington County history and sees great judges, leaders and people. It’s a legacy she said she strives to move forward.

Her first weeks have been a learning experience, she said, “but it feels right,” adding that everyone in the County has been welcoming. That’s how she feels about the local justice system, the federal system, and any justice system — that each has its good and bad facets, America being no exception.

“But [America’s justice system is] also a beautiful system, and we shouldn’t change it. It’s probably the best in the world, right?” Unfortunately, as Freeman witnessed and heard from family while growing up — in both Rock Island, Illinois until fifth grade, then St. Paul — the people most often going through the imperfect system are Blacks and others of color.

She noticed a pervasive distrust in the system at a young age. “I never understood why and wanted to be part of bridging the gap,” said Freeman.

Those who work toward bettering the system or beating down corruption tend to become defense attorneys, advocates for the system’s victims. Freeman counts those defense advocates as some of the best attorneys she’s seen.

She noted that they are also limited to going to a prosecutor to ask for a deal or asking a judge for mercy. Even as a kid, Freeman said she wanted to be on the decision-making side — to be the prosecutor or judge, to become the system.

After graduating from St. Paul Central High School, where she played basketball, she went to Hamline to pursue a degree in sociology and criminal justice and play a little more hoops. By her junior year, the power forward had set her sights on law school, eventually landing a spot at William Mitchell.

Once there, she couldn’t have been more locked-in. At some point, Freeman was clerking with the Hennepin County Attorney’s office drug and poverty teams, volunteering, and working in the Ramsey County Juvenile Detention Center, sometimes overnight, which doubled as study time. She even spent weekends as a makeup artist. “It was crazy,” said Freeman looking back on her law school days.

After graduating, Freeman continued at Hennepin County, where she’d been since 2008. “Private work is good, [but] it didn’t speak to me the same way public work did,” said Freeman of her post-graduate options. “I know I’m a public servant. I just know that’s who I am.”

She stayed at Hennepin County until her judicial appointment, rotating through departments like violent crimes or gangs teams and prosecuting hard, violent felonies on her way to being promoted to senior attorney. Continuing her passion for the youth system, she also worked in child protection.

Firmly ensconced in the system, Freeman’s journey as a Black woman attempting to enter its confines was unpredictably swift, but also predictably lined with barriers against her that continued to appear at the County Attorney’s office.

“If I reached any issue of diversity, or ‘hateration,’ as I would call it, or anything along those lines, I used that as ammunition,” said Freeman. She said she hopes and prays that she gave something beneficial to the situation, and that her hard work and passion would let someone “feel better about what they had to do.”

“I’m not gonna just give up,” said Freeman. “For me, that’s a loss.”

Freeman added that another reason she became a prosecutor is to change the misnomer that people of color and the poor are only defendants. “[They’re] are victims, [too],” she said. “I need to connect to those people, as well.”

She added that earning trust from impoverished victims of color is just as difficult as earning it from defendants. “I met plenty of victims,” said Freeman, “that looked at me like ‘I’m not snitching, you don’t live my life.’”

Freeman attributes her experiences sitting and listening to juvenile offenders as key to breaking down walls. Fittingly, her near-decade work as a prosecutor to build trust for victims and defendants alike also equipped her to take up the gavel. So does being a person of color.

“I’m going to look at things and circumstances through a different lens than some of my colleagues,” said Freeman.