Judge Stephen L. Maxwell (1921 -2009)

On more than one occasion, visitors to our library have noted that the judge portrait collection only contains portraits of white male judges. And they are correct.  While the portrait collection may be historically accurate for the time period it spans, it fails to reflect the more diverse bench serving the 2nd Judicial District that gradually came to be. It is fitting with Black History Month upon us to remember the first African-American judge to serve our district, even if his likeness doesn’t grace our walls. Indeed, he was the first African American District Court judge for the entire State of Minnesota.

Stephen L. Maxwell was born in 1921. His father, a barber, died when he was nine years old. He was raised by his mother, a social worker, and attended St. Paul Central High School. He put himself through Morehouse College in Atlanta and the St. Paul College of Law (now William Mitchell College of Law) by doing odd jobs along the way. During his schooling he also served in the U.S. Coast Guard as a lieutenant and commander and in the U.S. Navy, eventually earning his law degree in 1953.

He began his legal career in private practice in St. Paul. As legal counsel for the St. Paul NAACP in the 1950s, he won a substantial verdict for two black men who were refused service in a Dakota County bar. In 1959, Maxwell became an assistant Ramsey County attorney. He was a prosecutor in the highly publicized case of T. Eugene Thompson who in 1963 was convicted of arranging to have his wife killed. In 1964, Maxwell became St. Paul City Attorney, which he served until his appointment to the municipal court in 1967. He ran for Congress as a Republican in 1966 and garnered over 46% of the vote. He was appointed to the 2nd Judicial District bench in 1968, where he served nineteen years until he retired in 1987. He died on August 31, 2009.

Judge Maxwell appeared in a Navy ad that ran in Ebony Magazine in 1972

Judge Maxwell appeared in a Navy ad that ran in Ebony Magazine in 1972

Judge Maxwell was remembered as a “tough but fair” judge.    He was featured in an advertisement for the Navy Reserves in the December 1972 issue of Ebony magazine, and predictably he ran a tight ship in presiding over his courtroom.   Active 2nd District Judge Margaret “Peg” Marrinan remembers him as being “proper and timely,” but also possessing a uniquely subtle sense of humor.  More details about Judge Maxwell can be gleaned from his Pioneer Press and Star Tribune obituaries.  If you have favorite memories of Judge Maxwell, please feel free share them with us.

 

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