MANKATO — James Mason’s legal career may have been pre-ordained, given that his mother and father knew how to lay down the law.
His father was a Blue Earth County judge, a path Mason eventually followed, and his mother was an attorney.
In fact, in the mid-1960s she and Mason formed the first mother-son law partnership in Minnesota.
For Mason, who died Friday at 77, those parental bonds helped inform his judicial career, Blue Earth County Attorney Ross Arneson said.
“He used some of his father’s ways with jury instruction, and he had a good sense of humor. In chambers he’d share some of the stories about his father.”
Those in a Thursday night poker group with Mason years ago say it’s unknown whether his card-game habit was similarly genetic: He’d come to the table armed with $2 bills that, of course, no one else had.
That way, at the end of the night he’d know who relieved him of his money.
Mankato defense attorney Scott Cutcher lauded Mason for his up-front courtroom style.
“You always knew what he was thinking because he’d certainly let you know. It was easy to read where he was, as to his thoughts.”
In college at the University of Texas, the Mankato native played in the school marching band and later played tuba and trombone professionally with a Minnesota band.
From 1962-1965 he served as a Minnesota assistant attorney general to Walter Mondale, then returned to Mankato to establish a law practice.
In 1976 he was elected as a Blue Earth County trial judge, a post he held until his retirement in 2002.
He had a fondness for the outdoors — camping, canoeing and kayaking in particular.
Fellow enthusiast Arneson recalls Mason’s participation in annual spring river debris cleanup outings, and fellow Mankato Paddling and Outings Club member Brand Frentz recalls Mason’s zeal for long-haul river trips.
“He was best known for the Great River Rumble on the Mississippi River in late July,” Frentz said of the annual event for canoeists and kayakers.
Frentz said treks by Mason and wife Marcia included paddling from Mankato to Prescott, Wis., and going from Minneapolis to St. Louis.
Blue Earth County District Court Judge Bradley Walker said his colleague’s benchside manner was one of firmness — “You didn’t have to guess where he was coming from” — and empathy.
“He was very good with juveniles, very patient and understanding. He probably gave them more chances than they might have been deserving of.”
Walker said Mason served as his “senior mentor” and supplied some memorable advice early on in Walker’s judgeship.
“The most important thing he emphasized was timeliness. People who had to be in court were taking time off from work, they’d hired lawyers, so they shouldn’t have to wait around.”