DULUTH - St. Louis County District Judge Sally Tarnowski, a champion of addressing the mental health needs of people who came through her courtroom, died Monday when she was struck by a vehicle while out running in Venice, Fla., according to her family.
Tarnowski, 63, has served as a judge in St. Louis County since early 2007, after she was appointed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. She was chief judge of the Sixth Judicial District from 2016-2020. She was first elected in 2008 and her term runs through 2027. The St. Louis County Sixth District court calendar still shows her presiding over cases later this week.
Tarnowski's family did not have further comment.
Deb Holman, an outreach worker who works for Churches United in Ministry (CHUM) and the Human Development Center, encountered Tarnowski as a judge in early iterations of the ever-evolving St. Louis County Mental Health Court. Holman, who served as a liaison between the court system and some participants, found in Tarnowski someone with an open door and ready invitation. Tarnowski had empathy and compassion, Holman said, but was also stern in a kind way.
Tarnowski grew up in Duluth and graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth before attending William Mitchell College of Law — now Mitchell Hamline School of Law. Mitchell Hamline issued a public statement on the 1986 graduate: "She was the epitome of the public service we aim to instill in our schools," according to a Facebook post.
Former St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin described Tarnowski as a friend — in addition to a former colleague. She was vivacious with a wonderful laugh and an obvious joy for life. She biked to work, he said, even sometimes in inclement weather.
"If you appeared in front of her, you might not agree with the result, but you really respected the way she went about making her decision and the way she treated the defendant and the victims and everyone in the courtroom," Rubin said.
Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea said everyone within the Minnesota courts community was devastated by the loss.
"Beyond her exemplary service to Minnesota, Judge Tarnowski was a vibrant person whose commitment to justice shined through in everything she did," Gildea said in a statement.
Tarnowski pushed for mental health treatment court and supported early neutral evaluation in family court to ease resolving custody cases, according to a news release from the Minnesota Judicial Branch. Starting in 2015, she began working alongside UMD's Center for Regional and Tribal Child Welfare Studies to create the Indian Child Welfare Court in Duluth.
"Judge Tarnowski approached her work with tenacity and dedication," Sixth District Chief Judge Leslie Beiers said in a statement. "Her loss will be deeply felt by all of us in the Sixth District, and by everyone who had the pleasure of knowing her."
Services are pending.
Tarnowski and former St. Louis County Attorney and city councilor Barb Russ both died on Monday, the latter of natural causes. The St. Louis County Board had a moment of silence for both women before Tuesday's meeting.