As retirement approaches, Judge Regina Chu reflects on a long career and the impact of the Potter trial
Hennepin County District Judge Regina Chu had second thoughts when her boss asked her to preside over the manslaughter trial of ex-Central Brooklyn police officer Kimberly Potter – another case that will spark certainly an intense interest and emotion for the audience – but a sense of duty led her to set them aside.
That trial, which led to Potter’s conviction and jail term, became a hallmark of Chu’s 20-year career on the bench, but also created emotional days and restless nights.
Now, less than six weeks after sending Potter to prison for a two-year sentence for the death of Daunte Wright, Chu will hang up his robe next month.
“I thought about the trial a lot” away from the courtroom, Chu, 68, said in an interview with the Star Tribune on Friday, a day after Governor Tim Walz announced his retirement.
“I used to wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it. We had this rule at home: don’t talk about Potter after 8 p.m.,” Chu said of her pact with husband Jack Moore. “And then we’d be in bed at 10, and I’d be like, ‘I just thought of something, Jack.
“I sleep a lot better now. Let’s just say that.”
Chu made no apologies for letting her emotions surface in the courtroom on Feb. 18 as she explained the sentence, which was well below state guidelines, to the stunned disapproval of members of the court. Wright’s family and their supporters. Potter will serve 16 months of the 24-month sentence in prison for the death of Wright, 20, a black man, killed when Potter shot him with his handgun instead of his Taser during a traffic stop.
“It was the saddest case I’ve had in 20 years, and I’ve had a lot of sad cases,” Chu said. “You try to control [emotions]but judges are human beings.”
A hitch in her voice forced her to pause before continuing: “I’m not much of a crier, but I’ve cried before in other cases. … I don’t think there’s a judge on this bench that hasn’t cried at one time or another. At least, I would highly doubt it.
Chu could have sought re-election in the fall for another six-year term, but the state’s mandatory retirement age for lawyers of 70 would have meant leaving the bench by July 2023 after barely 1 1⁄2 years.
Instead, Chu submitted his retirement letter to Walz on February 15, three days before he imposed Potter’s prison sentence. She is adamant that the Potter trial did not influence her decision.
With a husband who has a 1 1⁄2A year ahead of retirement from a career as a lawyer, Chu said she decided several weeks before the start of the trial that it was time to look forward to pro bono tutoring, travel and to work on their cooking skills.
The daughter of Chinese immigrant parents who fled communism in the late 1940s, Chu became Minnesota’s first female Asian American district judge, when she was appointed by Governor Jesse Ventura in 2002. She was elected in 2004 and re-elected twice, sending her on a path to one of the most scrutinized legal proceedings in state history during her final months on the bench.
The two-year sentence imposed by Chu was well below state guidelines of about six to about 8 and a half years for first-degree manslaughter of a defendant like Potter, who had no other criminal history. The assumed duration was just over seven years.
Wright’s family and attorneys angrily condemned Chu after the sentencing, saying the judge was wrongly persuaded by Potter’s often tearful expressions of remorse.
Chu on Friday did not express any concerns about her sentence, nor did she second guess the verdicts, saying, “I respect the jury. I have always been impressed by the seriousness with which jurors take their duties. and how carefully they listen to the evidence, and how hard they try to make the right decision.”
As Chu approached presiding over Potter’s trial, protesters gathered outside the downtown Minneapolis building where they believed she was living and pleaded for her to allow the court proceedings to be broadcast live. Chu eventually reversed a decision against the live broadcast of the trial, saying the protesters had not influenced her but rather a resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic. In retrospect, she said, the Potter trial and the trial of former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, convicted of murdering George Floyd, proved to her that cameras can be present in the courtroom without being disruptive.
“I thought it was appropriate either way and it went really well, but I’ll leave the parameters to others [in the future]”, she said. “I had even forgotten that they were there…”
Chu nodded from behind her desk in the bedrooms on Friday towards a rowing machine she brought to her office after building security wouldn’t let her work out in the gym – a testimony from the efforts she made to keep a clear head.
Prior to joining the bench, Chu was an attorney in private practice in Minneapolis and Special Assistant Attorney General in Minnesota from 1981 to 1984. She clerked for State Supreme Court Justice Douglas Amdahl and graduated from the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul after earning an undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota.
She served as vice chair of the Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board and president of the state chapter of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association.
As Chu reflected on a decades-long career, she said it was impossible to downplay the roles played by her judicial colleagues.
“My fellow judges have been so supportive of me, both during the trial and after the trial,” she said. “That’s what this bench is for.”