After presiding over his first session of Borderland’s Substance Abuse Court in Lake of the Woods earlier this year, the first call Minnesota’s Ninth Judicial District Judge Jerrod Shermoen made was to his predecessor.

While heading east back to International Falls, Shermoen called former Judge Charles LeDuc to assure him the program LeDuc helped pioneer, is in good hands.

“It’s absolutely the best part of this job,” the newly-appointed judge said of the drug court program. “It’s the best experience of my life in or out of the practice of law.”

Shermoen, an International Falls native, in December was sworn in as judge of Minnesota’s Ninth Judicial District, after the October appointment by Gov. Tim Walz. Shermoen fills the vacancy left with the retirement in August of Leduc. The seat is chambered in International Falls.

Discussion of Borderland’s Substance Abuse Court, which includes Koochiching and Lake of the Woods counties, came up when Shermoen sat down with The Journal in February to talk about the new role and goals he has as he navigates through the position.

“This program is just very powerful and very meaningful,” Shermoen said. “The way I describe it to people... We’re building people up instead of tearing them down... It’s very rewarding.”

Helping to create better communities and the lives of those who live in them, fall in line with Shermoen’s intentions on the bench. He said he views good communication as an important piece for everyone working in the legal system.

“At the end of the day... we all are aiming for the same thing, we want to make people’s lives better,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how people end up in front of us in the system, that’s the goal. I feel sometimes we’re butting heads against each other — which there are times and places that absolutely needs to happen — but there are also times I think we can all put our heads together and try to work together to find solutions instead of creating barriers.”

Becoming a judge

Prior to the appointment as judge, Shermoen served as an attorney and president at ShermoenJaksa Law, PLLC. Previously, he was a managing partner at Shermoen & Jaksa PLLP, and a partner at Shermoen, LeDuc & Jaksa, PLLP.

When asked if becoming a judge was the ultimate career goal, Shermoen admitted it wasn’t at first.

“I would say really over the last 10 years in my practice I started thinking more about (being a judge),” he said.

After spending a significant amount of time in front of different judges all over the state, Shermoen realized the opportunities the role carries.

“I started feeling like I could do more good work if I became a judge,” he said. “I started moving in that direction.”

In 2018, a position for a judge in Grand Rapids narrowed the field to a short list of finalists, including Shermoen. Ultimately, he wasn’t selected for the position, but it solidified his decision to steer his career in that direction.

“I knew at that point I was most likely going to apply when Judge LeDuc retired,” he said. “It was a very worthwhile process and I’m glad I went through it. It helped me this time around.”

Pandemic adjustments

Any new job carries a learning curve, but working around a worldwide pandemic is a completely different obstacle.

Shermoen said the pandemic has brought challenges, as well as new opportunities, all while creating quite a bit of work on the horizon.

When it comes to technology, the judge said it has drawbacks in certain areas, but still offers advantages.

“Technology has opened up more access for more people in the courts,” he said. “Video hearings are certainly going to be part of the court system going forward.”

And while it allows more access to the court room, video hearings still eliminate the face-to-face connection. Listening to testimonies on a screen has a different feel than if the person was in the same room, looking others in the eye, Shermoen said.

Still, those working in the system do what they can with the situation.

“Does it work? Are we making it work in the system? Yes, we are. Do I like it? Not necessarily. That’s a challenge with the pandemic,” he said.

Another point on the list of challenges? Delays. Trials are expected to restart next week, but have been on hold for several months, creating an expected back log.

“That’s the big question mark: how are we going to work that through the system once we get the green light to start having (trials) again?,” Shermoen said. “There could be many months at a time that trials go back-to-back-to-back. I’m certainly cognizant of that and staff is trying to plan the best they can.”

Ready to work

As Shermoen discussed his new job, he couldn’t help but glance out the second floor window of the Koochiching County courthouse, overlooking the Sixth Avenue building his practice was once in.

“My old firm is shut down, which I have mixed feelings about,” he said of the firm his father, Jerry Shermoen, started in the late 1960s. Jerry Shermoen died in 2019.

Thinking of his father, Shermoen said he is confident Jerry would be proud.

“In 2018, he was very proud I was a finalist for the judge position in Grand Rapids,” Shermoen said. “I know he’d be proud and I know he’d say not to feel bad about the firm.”

Knowing he will continue to serve his hometown and surrounding area is important to Shermoen and he vows to do the job justice.

“I take this serious and I will work hard,” he said. “Nobody is going to out-work me. I take the role and the responsibility very seriously. We all make mistakes, but I’m going to do the best job I can and make as few of them as possible.”