On October 19, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz announced the appointment of Duluth attorney Steve Hanke to replace The Honorable Michael J. Cuzzo, who retired from the bench on October 2, 2023. Cuzzo has served as the Sixth District Court Judge, which in-cludes all of Lake and Cook County, since January 3, 2011. His retirement was accepted by Walz and announced last summer.
Hanke joined the office of the City Attorney of Duluth in 2009. An Assistant City Attorney, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Dakota and a JD from the University of Minnesota.
In addition to working on civil and criminal cases for the city, Hanke is an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin–Superior. He serves as president of the 11th District Bar Association.
Hanke grew up in the small town of Homer, MN, on the Mississippi River near Winona. After graduating from Winona Senior High School, he did his undergraduate work at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. While attending law school at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, Hanke interned at a law firm in Rochester, MN, and was offered a position there upon receiving his JD. He also worked for the Olmstead County Law Library.
About his judicial philosophy, Hanke said, “It’s about treating everyone fairly. One case and one person at a time.” He’s ready, he said, to roll up his sleeves because there is a lot of work to do.
The Minnesota Commission on Judicial Selection, a body created by the Minnesota legislature in 1989, narrowed the candidate field to three possible appointments for Walz. On October 3, the Commission announced that in addition to Hanke, it was recommending Cook County Attorney Molly Hicken of Grand Marais and Tyson Smith, private attorney and Managing Partner at Smith Law PLLC in Grand Marais.
Hanke and his wife, Chelsea, are proud parents of a soccer-playing son, 12-year-old Ryden. Chelsea grew up in Two Harbors, and her family still lives there. The couple are avid gardeners, maintaining a greenhouse for year-round flowers, herbs, and vegetables. Hanke admits, reluctantly, that Chelsea does most of the hard work of gardening.
The family enjoys running, hiking, and paddling in their free time. Although Ryden is lobbying for a power boat, Dad doesn’t think they need one now.
A significant influence in Hanke’s career is the late Judge Dennis Challeen, a District Court Judge in Winona for 35 years, retiring in 1999. Challeen was the first judge in the United States to sentence non-violent offenders to community service instead of jail time. According to the National Judicial College, where Challeen taught for over 30 years, “The sentencing-to-community-service concept gradually took hold in the United States and today is practiced around the world.”
Hanke is moved by Challeen’s book Swamp Water Jurisprudence, published in 2007. The subtitle is “A candid, sometimes humorous journey into the backwaters of the criminal mind and our criminal justice system. The memoirs of a retired judge.”
Hanke is currently a prosecutor in the DWI court in Duluth. An advocate of restorative justice programs, he hopes to create a DWI court serving Cook and Lake County during his first term.
In a press release announcing the appointment, Governor Walz said about Hanke, “His dedication to serving his community and commitment to finding creative solutions to challenging issues makes me confident that he will be an excellent jurist for Lake and Cook Counties.”
Hanke will be sworn in as The Honorable Steve Hanke on Monday, December 4. He will maintain chambers in the Lake and Cook County courthouses.