Court communities are devastated by sudden death of Sally Tarnowski

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The Minnesota Judicial branch is reporting that Duluth Judge, Sally Tarnowski has died while on vacation in Florida. 

Her court family is reeling from the unexpected loss.

Kim Maki, St. Louis County Attorney, said, “I just think it’s going to be really difficult to get past this and to figure out how to handle all of the things that she engaged in.”

If you didn’t know Judge Tarnowski personally, this is how Maki described her courtroom demeanor.

“I think the one thing that really marked Judge Tarnowski was how much she cared about people who were struggling, people who had mental health issues, people who had substance abuse issues, kids who were in difficult situations, and their parents. She cared about all of them, and she listened to them very actively. So they felt heard. Even if they didn’t agree with her ultimate decision, they felt heard and valued.”

More recently, Tarnowski was working on a new program to help the downtown community. Maki said she is grateful for the leadership and the blue print left behind.

Tarnowski was appointed by Governor Pawlenty in 2007, at the same time as Judge Hylden. She moved from private practice to public service.

She served as the Chief Judge of the Sixth Judicial District from 2016 to 2020. She most recently served as a St. Louis County Judge in Duluth.

“All of us within the Minnesota courts community are devastated by the loss of Judge Tarnowski,” said Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea. “Beyond her exemplary service to Minnesota, Judge Tarnowski was a vibrant person whose commitment to justice shined through in everything she did.”

Among her many accomplishments, Judge Tarnowski championed mental health treatment court, which offers offenders a pathway out of the justice system by completing a treatment program to stop the behavior that led them to court. She also supported early neutral evaluation in family court, which facilitates prompt dispute resolution for custody, parenting time, and financial matters.

“Judge Tarnowski approached her work with tenacity and dedication,” said Sixth District Chief Judge Leslie Beiers. “Her loss will be deeply felt by all of us in the Sixth District, and by everyone who had the pleasure of knowing her.”

The St. Louis County Board acknowledged Tarnowski’s passing at the beginning of their meeting on Tuesday. They also acknowledge former assistant St. Louis County attorney Barb Russ, who also died on Monday.

Services are pending.