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Cousins and colleagues: Mountain Iron natives bring special bond to bench

Michelle Anderson turns to hug her sons Nikolas and Dylan during the district court judge swearing-in ceremony at the St. Louis County courthouse as Judge Gary Pagliaccetti looks on in Virginia on Friday, Sept. 22. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)1 / 7
Judge Annie Claesson-Huesby speaks as her sister Alicia Atkins of Mountain Iron holds large photos of cousins Annie and Michelle Anderson during the district court judge swearing-in ceremony for Michelle Anderson at the St. Louis County courthouse in Virginia Friday, Sept. 22. The two are pictured in their prom dresses. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)2 / 7
Michelle Anderson smiles as St. Louis County attorney Mark Rubin speaks during her district court judge swearing-in ceremony at the St. Louis County courthouse in Virginia on Friday Sept. 22. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)3 / 7
District court judge Michelle Anderson (right) stands with her cousin Annie Claesson-Huesby who also is a district court judge at the St. Louis County courthouse in Virginia Friday, Sept. 22. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)4 / 7
A photo of Annie Claesson-Huesby (left) and Michelle Anderson are pictured with their grandmother Betty Cuppoletti on the day they graduated from law school together. Cuppoletti worked as a dispatcher for St. Louis County. (Submitted photo)5 / 7
Judge Michelle Anderson speaks during her district court judge swearing-in ceremony at the St. Louis County courthouse in Virginia on Friday, Sept. 22. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)6 / 7
District court judge Gary Pagliaccetti administers the oath of office during the district court judge swearing-in ceremony for Michelle Anderson at the St. Louis County courthouse in Virginia on Friday, Sept. 22. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)7 / 7

VIRGINIA, Minn. — There are roughly 300 judges serving at about 100 courthouses throughout Minnesota.

In rural parts of the state, where a courthouse may be served by only one or two judges, vacancies are few and far between. With judges serving six-year terms and rarely facing election challenges, it can often take a decade or more for a seat to open.

So what are the odds that two women donning the robes and taking the bench for the first time in back-to-back months are first cousins who grew up on the same street in tiny Mountain Iron, lived together through law school and cut their teeth as prosecutors?

"It's almost too much to wrap my head around," said Michelle Anderson, who recently took the oath as the Iron Range's first new judge since 2004. "The timing of it all is incredible."

Anderson was serving as the chief prosecutor for northern St. Louis County when she learned in July that Gov. Mark Dayton had selected her for the 6th Judicial District seat.

She hadn't even assumed the role when her extended family in Mountain Iron was welcomed with a second big announcement from the governor's office in August: Anderson's cousin, Beltrami County Attorney Annie Claesson-Huseby, had been appointed to a 9th Judicial District seat in Bemidji.

"The idea of both of those opening within a short period of time, and for both of us to get appointed, is such a happy circumstance," Claesson-Huseby said. "It's an incredible situation and a magnificent opportunity."

Range roots

The cousins, born just a year apart, come from a large, close-knit family in Mountain Iron.

Anderson, 42, grew up on Garden Drive South; Claesson-Huseby, 41, on Garden Drive North. Their mothers are sisters. They'd vacation together, and they estimated that more family meals were spent together than apart.

"I have aunts and uncles who are my second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth mothers and fathers, because they were big influences in my life," Anderson said. "And my cousins, we grew up more like siblings."

Anderson left to study at the University of North Dakota and was joined a year later by Claesson-Huseby. They were roommates together throughout their undergraduate and law school days, ultimately earning their law degrees in the same class.

The cousins' paths diverged after law school, but they remark on the parallel careers they forged en route to the bench.

Anderson returned to the Range, serving as a law clerk to Virginia Judge Gary Pagliaccetti and then entering private practice with Hibbing attorney Richard Prebich. She was hired as a prosecutor by the St. Louis County Attorney's Office in 2006, earning a promotion in 2016 to become the office's first criminal division head for the Virginia and Hibbing courthouses.

Claesson-Huseby moved to Bemidji, working first for Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota and then joining Beltrami County as a prosecutor. She was promoted to chief assistant county attorney and was elected in 2014 to her first term as county attorney after her boss, 25-year incumbent Tim Faver, decided to retire.

"To define our relationship, it's really more like cousin, friend, colleague and support person," Claesson-Huseby said. "We've been able to walk through a lot together."

One might expect that a family producing two trailblazing young judges would have a long history in the legal profession. In reality, the cousins were the first in their family to earn advanced degrees.

But community service has been a common theme in the family, which includes teachers, nurses and public works employees. Both cousins spoke of the influence of their maternal grandmother, who served as a dispatcher for St. Louis County.

"She knew the importance of answering the call when someone was in trouble," Claesson-Huseby said. "That was the message we were taught as children."

Learning together

Claesson-Huseby joked about the number of times she has interrupted Anderson's family dinners with a phone call over the years.

They've always been able to turn to one another for help. Claesson-Huseby said Anderson has probably heard a preview of most every opening statement and closing argument she's ever given before a jury.

"We help each other with cases," she said. "We can ask, 'Hey, does this fit with the case?' It's been such a gift to have that person that you can ask any question of."

That sentiment was shared by Anderson. The cousins are quick to give each other credit for their successes.

"Through law school and prosecuting, I've always called on her and run ideas by her," Anderson said. "We've been able to lean on each other, and it's pretty incredible to be able to share this experience with her."

They said that bond has served both well in what can be an intimidating judicial application process. The months-long undertaking involves in-depth written applications, background and reference checks, screening and an interview by a local selection commission and, finally, meeting face-to-face with the governor and his staff.

"Annie was the first person I called after I was done," Anderson said of her visit to the Capitol.

Anderson has been slightly ahead on the judicial path — she officially joined the bench on Sept. 6, spending most of her first few weeks observing other judges across the district. Claesson-Huseby will start that same process on Wednesday.

But the two new judges figure they'll once again experience a learning curve together.

"To be able to walk through this with her, I don't feel like I'm doing it alone," Claesson-Huseby said. "I'm doing it with my cousin and my friend. It has made the process that much more enjoyable, and also a little less daunting."