After Esther Mulder graduated from Harvard Law School last year, she moved back to Minnesota to take a job in the Hennepin County public defender’s office. “I identify with underdogs,” she said. “I was an underdog.”
Anoka County Judge Steve Askew has been retired for six years. He spends his summers at the lake with wife, Carol, a retired social worker. He enjoys his three grandsons and cares for his parents, now in their 90s.
And once in a while, the 70-year-old judge reflects on his 25 years on the bench and wonders — like many do with a front-row seat to human pain and potential — what happened to those who stood before him.
“Most of what you hear about past cases is those who have not done so well,” Askew said before correcting himself. “Actually, you mostly hear nothing at all about old cases, so I like to hope for the best.”
So he was deeply moved — and quite surprised — when an outpouring of gratitude and validation arrived recently in his inbox.
“Judge Askew,” the writer began. “This e-mail will likely seem to be quite out of the blue to you, and I don’t even really know where to start.”
Esther Mulder was 7 months old when she began her relationship with the Minnesota foster care system. An only child born in Florida, Mulder and her mother, who suffers from mental health challenges, moved here to be near relatives.
Soon after their arrival, Mulder began a back-and-forth shuttle from her mother’s apartment to respite care with a foster family in Coon Rapids who could offer her more stability.
“It was predictable there,” said 29-year-old Mulder, recalling a serene moment of normalcy when her foster mother washed her hair with cream rinse.
Still, Mulder struggled in school. When she mentioned her dream of college, a well-meaning social worker counseled her to “be realistic.”
In sixth grade, Mulder was placed at St. Joseph’s Home for Children, where smaller classes got her back on track. “I began to understand math,” she said. “I was an avid reader. That changed what school was for me.”
Something else changed. In 1997, the middle-schooler appeared for the first time before an Anoka County judge who would review her care and living preferences twice annually as a ward of the state. Because the county valued consistency, Mulder was assigned to the same judge for seven years.
“I appeared before you as a juvenile in permanent foster care in Anoka County,” Mulder continued in her e-mail to Askew. “I don’t expect you to remember me, but I wanted to write to you to say thank you, all those years ago, for making the decisions that you did in my case.”
The judge did remember her.
“She was quiet, thoughtful and really made the most of the opportunities,” he said from his cabin. “She really did well in foster care. Her mother was a decent person, but had long-term issues. We did what we could to support her.”
One of his most gracious efforts, she said, was to remind the wounded teenager to not “cast away lightly” her relationship with her mother.
Found her focus
By the time she entered Blaine High School, Mulder, who was again living in foster care, had shed self-doubt about college and was supremely focused.
She played viola in the orchestra, joined the swimming and diving teams, beat all the boys in her gym class in push-ups and became passionate about English and social studies.
She worked part-time at a Dairy Queen and began her college countdown by taking college tours.
“I knew I had to get good grades — and scholarships,” she said.
Few knew that she was a ward of the state. “I didn’t want my teachers to know,” she said. “I knew they’d lower their expectations.”
Askew never lowered his. Twice a year, the judge and the teenager met in a small courtroom. He was, Mulder said, “a stable and fair presence.” When she was 18, he extended her ward-of-the-state status until she began college, “to make sure I wasn’t thrown into the world without any lifelines.”
Mulder attended Gustavus Adolphus College on a full-ride scholarship, majoring in political science. She graduated in 2008 with honors. She joined Teach for America and taught middle-school social studies and coached swimming for three years in Florida.
“Growing up,” she said, “prepared me well for doing difficult things.”
While she loved the public service nature of teaching at-risk children, she began to wonder if her skill set was a better fit for law. “I could serve the same community,” she said, “but in a different way.”
She took the LSAT and applied to Harvard Law School on a whim. When an admissions officer called her, she thought it was a joke. “I think I said some audacious things to the interviewer.” Nonetheless, she was accepted, logging more than 2,000 hours of pro bono legal work during her law school studies.
When she graduated from Harvard in May 2014, she moved back to Minnesota to take a job with the Hennepin County public defender’s office.
“I love my clients,” Mulder said recently over coffee in downtown Minneapolis, not far from her office. “There are some heartbreaking stories. But I identify with underdogs. I was an underdog.”
She and her mother, who lives in a supervised living arrangement, talk on a regular basis. Mulder visits her mom every other Saturday. Mulder plays in a community orchestra, swims, runs and travels.
This summer, one piece of unfinished business was tied up when Mulder approached a veteran public defender in her office. Bryan J. Leary once practiced law in Anoka County. Might he know how Mulder could contact the retired judge? Leary provided Mulder with Askew’s e-mail address.
The thoughtful judge and the passionate public defender plan to meet for coffee soon. They have a lot to talk about. “You try and make the best decision you can at the moment,” Askew said. “There’s always a few that haunt you. If the calluses get too deep, you’re probably not doing a very good job.”
News of Mulder’s success “was a real uplifting moment on a sleepy summer afternoon,” he said. “It’s always good to hear that something went this well.” But he insists that he was among many who saw great potential in the young woman.
“She did this because of who she is,” he said.Then he laughed.“She’s got spiffier credentials now than I do.”
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