Denise Reilly

Denise Reilly '75

Assistant Chief Judge, Fourth Judicial District, Minnesota

After a day in court— the kind of day that reveals how children are hurt by their parents’ cycles of failure and despair—Judge Denise Reilly ’75 says that she wants to go home and hug her children. They’re too old for daily hugging, so whenever she can, she gives her six-month-old grandson an extra snuggle. “Some of the things I hear can break your heart.”

But Reilly, a Minnesota District Court judge for the past 12 years, believes that human breakage, hearts included, can be prevented. As the presiding judge of juvenile cases, her mission is to direct the state’s attention to children who need protection from their parents’ chemical abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, poverty, and homelessness. She does so with resourcefulness and caring. For example, she found unacceptable the fact that in Hennepin County alone, more than  800 youth were in long-term foster care. Under her direction, regular reviews were conducted, resulting in reduced numbers and better transitional education and care for teens aging out of the system. 

Judge Reilly’s job is less about judging than it is about justice. She speaks of respect, full hearings, and protection of rights. But she also says, “There are times when people need to hear that what they did was wrong. I tell parents, ‘If you choose to use cocaine or methamphetamine, then you have chosen not to raise your children. It’s your choice. You have this responsibility and by your behavior I will know what your choice is.’”

Reilly’s memories of her own childhood include plenty of love and high respect for education. She graduated from the American High School in Japan and majored in religion at Wooster. High on her list of valuable Wooster student experiences was a trip to Israel, hosted by the late Art Baird, professor of religion, and his wife, Mary. “We did this at a time when most Americans only heard the Israeli side of things,” said Reilly. “The Bairds made sure that we students were also fully exposed to the Palestinian side. “There was a willingness at Wooster to acknowledge, recognize, and talk about the complexities of issues that face the world.”

In 2009, Reilly was one of three judges on a panel that decided the winner of Minnesota’s disputed U.S. Senate election between Democrat Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman, a decision that determined which political party controlled the Senate. The nation held its breath as the panelists deliberated, and then declared Franken the winner. The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the ruling. 

Reilly and the other panelists have received high praise for their role, including a Community Service Award from the Minnesota District Judges Foundation. But Reilly is just as valued for the day-to-day work she does.  In 2006, The College awarded her a Distinguished Alumni Award.