Luther Alumni Magazine

Frank works in his chambers, which are adorned with photographs, mementos, and awards from his 37-year legal career.

Looking out for those in need

When you see the dozens of mugs scattered through the chambers of Judge Donovan Frank ’73 and learn that he averages 18 to 22 cups of coffee a day, certain things begin to click into place.

How else could one man manage to initiate a reentry program for released criminal offenders, support countless people with drug and alcohol addictions, promote racial and gender diversity, host hundreds of students at a district courthouse each year, advocate tirelessly for disability justice, earn a lifetime appointment to the federal bench, and handle more than 300 cases at any given time?

Sure, the coffee’s an aid, but Frank’s unique ethos is what keeps him motivated to improve our justice systems, and that ethos took shape early.

Education at the family store

Judge Frank had a colorful upbringing, the kind that would start off an Oscar-winning movie. His parents, born into farming in Spring Valley, Minn., ran a TV and appliance store when Frank was a child. His father, a Golden Gloves boxer, kept a pair of gloves behind the counter. When anyone wanted to dicker on price, he told them to put on the gloves and try to knock him down; if they could, he lowered the price.

Antics aside, Frank got an early education in parity through that family business. During the store’s annual turkey draw, Frank’s father would dump the entries on the table and have Frank draw one stub after another until he came up with the name of a family in need. For the schoolboy, it was an object lesson in giving a leg up to people who needed one.

Read about how Judge Frank made legal history on June 17, 2015.

Another lesson that Frank learned as a boy came through his dad’s cousin, Dutch, who was developmentally disabled. Frank’s parent’s made sure to include Dutch in everything, from working on the farm and then in the family store to going to church on Sunday. Frank recalls, “I’ll never forget. My dad said, ‘He has the same hopes and dreams as you do.’” Frank’s dad also said, “In the end, that’s how we’ll be judged: How do we treat the most vulnerable people among us?”

It’s a question that Frank seems to assess himself by on a daily basis.

Frank grew up baling hay on family farms or helping install antennas and deliver appliances for his parents’ store. He spent one summer on a crew in Iowa that deconstructed old granaries, and he spent three of his four years at Luther working food service. During his junior year he studied abroad in Durham, England, where he took a law course that required him to wear robes to class.

He must have had judicial aspirations before then, however, because he remembers returning to Spring Valley on breaks to take a light ribbing from the neighbors: “People would call my house and say, ‘Is the prelaw man there? You know, Perry? Perry Mason?’ I didn’t know any lawyers,” he reminisces, “but I must have talked about it quite a bit.”

Students occupy Main Hall in 1973. Photo from the 1973 Pioneer yearbook.
Students occupy Main Hall in 1973. Photo from the 1973 Pioneer yearbook.

As a Luther student, Frank was involved in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations as well as the famed 1973 protest in Main, during which Luther students occupied the building in objection to campus administration. While their counterparts across the country were rioting and bombing buildings, the Luther protestors were polite by any standards, with newspaper coverage focusing on how thoroughly they tidied up after themselves. “I always say we were probably an insult to the Berkeley and Madison people because we didn’t burn anything down or ruin any property—we even cleaned up after ourselves,” Frank says.

But the revolutionary fervor of the times made an impression on the political science major. He says, “That’s why a lot of us wanted to go to law school—we weren’t thinking about making money, we wanted to save the world.”

Home on the Iron Range

Frank graduated law school from Hamline University in 1977 and was promptly hired as an assistant prosecutor for the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office in Virginia, Minn. There, in the state’s northeast quadrant, he received an education in real life. He jokes, “They looked for ignorant young prosecutors like me and hoped we had an open mind. I was being trained the whole time and didn’t even realize it.”

On the Iron Range, as Minnesota’s northeastern mining region is known, Frank was quickly recruited for a number of boards that would have a major bearing on his later service and judicial work. Between his roles on the board of directors of the Range Mental Health Center and the East Range Developmental Achievement Center, Frank learned a lot about mental health, developmental disabilities, and advocating for people who need a little extra help. “When you live with parents and friends and children of people with developmental disabilities, you get educated by them, and the stereotypes fall away,” he says.

Frank was also a member of the St. Louis County Child Abuse Team, and in his early years on the Iron Range, he worked on a lot of child abuse, neglect, and commitment cases, including the first case in Minnesota that allowed expert testimony to explain why young children often do not report abuse and why mothers often side with abusers. In the appeal, State v. Myers, which Frank also handled, the Minnesota State Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the legitimacy of using the testimony. 

Judge Donovan Frank ’73 in his courtroom in the U.S. District Courthouse in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Judge Donovan Frank ’73 in his courtroom in the U.S. District Courthouse in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Frank is now presiding over another case involving sex offenders that promises to make history. This time the case is a class action suit brought against the state by so-called clients of the Minnesota Sex Offender Treatment Program (MSOP). The clients have completed prison sentences for sex offenses but are committed to a high-security facility in Moose Lake because they’re considered likely to reoffend. They are held indefinitely, with only two of the 700 offenders having been granted even provisional release from the 19-year-old program. While Frank cannot comment on a current case, in March he urged the Minnesota legislature to fix what he called a “clearly broken” system. But the legislature convened its 2014 session without having acted on MSOP, and now Frank is expected to rule on the constitutionality of the program by February 16.

Working on a serious problem

When Frank joined the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office in 1977, no one in his new community knew that he was recovering from a major alcohol addiction. “I went up there as a new lawyer with less than one year of sobriety under my belt, working a 12-step program,” he says. (The judge marked 38 years of sobriety in the fall of 2014.)

Coincidentally, one of Frank’s responsibilities when he went up to the Iron Range was to do mental health and chemical dependency competency and commitment hearings.

Frank believes that his personal history gave him some sensitivity without judgment. “And because I was working a program,” he says, “I soon started seeing how we weren’t properly screening individuals in jails for mental health and addiction issues. If you don’t address some of those problems, you’re just going to get a revolving door.”

In recognition of his work to help people struggling with addiction, in 2000, the Range Mental Health Center named a detox and treatment center after him.

“My kids say, ‘Why did they name this building after you? Usually they only do that for dead people or people who give a lot of money, and you didn’t do either one,’” he jokes. “I said to the guy who called me, ‘I don’t deserve that.’ He said, ‘Well, you might be a judge, but you don’t get to decide this—we do.’”

To address the systemic “revolving door” problem and to help ease the transition of released prisoners back into the community, Frank is currently working to initiate a reentry program in the Twin Cities area that will require released offenders to come to the courthouse once a week to meet with him or a colleague, the Honorable Susan Richard Nelson. The program will include more careful screening for mental health and chemical addiction, and it will require offenders who have gone through addiction treatment to have a sponsor and attend an addiction program, as well as to come to the courthouse within 36 hours if they test positive during a drug screening.

Frank has also been on the board of directors of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, a free, confidential assistance program for legal professionals, since 2005, earning its Fred Allen Outstanding Service Award in 2014. His best friend and chief district judge of Minnesota Michael Davis says, “Donovan is nationally known throughout the judiciary and is called upon by the highest officials in the judiciary to help other federal judges who have problems with alcohol or drugs. He meets with them and counsels them to make sure that they understand what they have to go through and are going through and will have to do afterward. That’s a testament to his image of sobriety and to making sure that other people in similar situations get the appropriate treatment.”

Disability justice

No aspect of Frank’s career is more recognized than his work on behalf of the developmentally disabled. Because of his experiences in Spring Valley and the Iron Range, when Frank was appointed a state judge in 1985, he brought with him an awareness of and sensitivity to the plight of individuals with disabilities. He invited groups of students, including groups of students with developmental disabilities, to visit the courthouse.

Soon, other groups of individuals with developmental disabilities started visiting too. During one such visit, after Frank explained the idea of equal justice under the law, a developmentally disabled woman asked, “Does that mean that I get the same rights as the wife of the president?” Toward the end of the visit, three women asked to speak to the judge privately and told him they’d been victims of abuse that had been shrugged off by law enforcement. The experience opened his eyes to the vulnerability of this “forgotten minority,” as he calls the developmentally disabled.

So when 22 developmentally disabled maintenance workers at the federal courthouse where Frank serves were going to be displaced—perhaps permanently—during a three-year remodel, the judge lobbied to ensure that they could keep their employment during the renovation and afterward.

He now works doggedly to defend the rights of the developmentally disabled, recruiting pro bono attorneys for developmentally disabled litigants and, along with Becky Thorson, a partner at a Minneapolis law firm, training legal professionals about how best to represent clients with disabilities. Importantly, Frank and Thorson make sure to include a person with a disability, Karen Loven, on the continuing-education faculty. Frank says that the result has been profound: “You can’t even believe the reaction that we’ve had. People—prominent lawyers and judges—will come up to us and say, ‘Thank you, you’ve opened our eyes. We didn’t realize that we were carrying around these stereotypes.’”

For his efforts toward disability justice, Frank has received the American Bar Association’s Paul G. Hearne Award and Arc Minnesota’s Luther Granquist Systems Change Award, among other recognitions.

In addition to his disability-justice work, Frank has worked extensively to promote racial and gender diversity, receiving the Federal Bar Association’s Elaine R. “Boots” Fisher Award in recognition of outstanding public service and dedication to diversity in the legal community in 2006.

As a judge

After serving as a state judge in the Sixth Judicial District for 13 years, five of them as chief judge, Frank was recommended for the federal bench by the late Senator Paul Wellstone, nominated by President Bill Clinton, and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 1998.

“When you get nominated for federal judgeship,” Frank says, “the FBI talks to everyone everywhere you’ve ever lived and asks questions like, How does he live in the community? Does he set an example for others? So one day I get a call from the former head of the political science department at Luther, Louis Loeb. I say, ‘Oh hi—I haven’t talked to you for years!’ And he says, ‘Donovan, I thought you cleaned up in the 1970s! Can you tell me why the FBI is at my door wanting to talk about you?’”

As a federal judge, when Frank hears about a young person with an interest in law (or an interest in Luther), he doesn’t hesitate to invite them to the courthouse for a visit, as he recently did a top graduate from St. Paul Central High School about whom he had read in the newspaper. “Sometimes people think federal judges are aloof, and I don’t think we are, but that’s the perception because we’re a much smaller group,” he says, noting that there are 330-some state judges and only seven federal judges in Minnesota.

Frank’s vast collection of coffee mugs includes one with a quotation that also serves as his computer’s screen saver.
Frank’s vast collection of coffee mugs includes one with a quotation that also serves as his computer’s screen saver.

Frank also has a more formal visiting program for high schoolers called Open Doors to Federal Courts. Through the program, Frank invites students from one rural and one urban school each year to observe the ins and outs of the court system. Volunteer lawyers visit the students’ classrooms a week in advance of the one-day fieldtrip to the courthouse. The program, which celebrates its 16th year this April, was awarded the American Bar Association’s Law Day Activity Award in 2010.

As a federal judge, Frank has about 300 civil cases and 60 criminal defendants assigned to him at any given time, and he also presides over a handful of national multidistrict litigation cases. He has been described by the media as both a “maverick” and “tough but fair.” Davis, who knows him well both as a friend and a judge, says, “There’s no doubt that he has the capacity to see the full human condition and be a judge that can render the appropriate compassion in a case, but that doesn’t mean that he’s a bleeding heart. He’s been able to see the situation surrounding litigants and serve the appropriate justice.”

Says Thorson, “He is so down to earth and real, and I love to see how that plays out in the formal setting of federal court proceedings. People walk away after their time in court knowing that they’ve been heard. They may disagree with the decision, but I think all parties feel heard.”

The lighter side

The judge and his wife, Kathy (Jacobsen) Frank ’74, have five daughters, including two sets of twins. All five are, in some capacity, involved in the medical profession, with one in an obstetrics residency, one in medical school, one in dental school, one in physician’s assistant school, and one working in marketing at a blood center.

Three of Frank’s daughters are naturalized citizens, having been adopted from Korea, and perhaps that’s why he’s taken the lead among his courthouse colleagues for conducting naturalization ceremonies.

Frank typically swears in new citizens through mass ceremonies involving upward of a thousand people, but occasionally circumstances require a fast-tracked naturalization.

Through these individual, under-the-wire ceremonies, Frank has made citizens of military members, missionaries, individuals with health concerns, and two Olympians. One such ceremony was for a man from Somalia serving in the U.S. Army, about to go off to boot camp. Prompted by some anti-Somali sentiments and protests that had recently been reported in the news, Judge Frank asked the serviceman why he was willing to put his life on the line for a country where some individuals would rather send him back to his country of birth. There was not a dry eye in the room when this young man responded, “It’s the least I can do for a country that saved my life.  This is the country that gave me my first taste of freedom.”

Frank tells a story that sums up a lot about him. “When I was sworn in as a state judge on February 1 of 1985—I still get emotional thinking about it—my father said to me, ‘Have I raised you right, son?’

“I said, ‘I think you have, but I think you’re about to tell me something.’”

His father replied, “I read the oath you’re about to take as a judge, and I think what it means, and how we’ve tried to raise you, is this: no matter how poor, how unimportant someone is, how rich or influential, everybody gets the same respectful treatment.”

“I said, ‘You understand exactly what my oath is. That’s what it is, that’s how I was raised.’”


Photos by Aaron Lurth ’08