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After 16 years on the bench, St. Louis County District Judge Shaun Floerke is stepping down to take over the Duluth Superior Community Area Foundation.

Floerke will start Jan. 11 as president and CEO of the philanthropy organization, which has an endowment of more than $80 million.

The 55-year-old judge was appointed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2004 and has won three elections since. During his tenure in Duluth, Floerke has experimented with new approaches to cases involving substance and mental illness, such as the South St. Louis County DWI Court that has been nationally recognized for boosting treatment rates.

At a news conference Tuesday, Floerke said he sees the role as a chance to proactively address some of the issues that have landed folks in his courtroom over the years.

"Justice doesn't live in a courthouse," Floerke said. "I think every bit that this foundation does is about justice in our community."

Floerke will replace Holly Sampson, who retired in June after serving at the foundation's helm for 30 years. David Kropid, chair of the foundation's board of trustees, called Sampson "a legend" who grew the fund's endowment by $75 million.

"Since becoming a judge, Shaun has been a problem solver," Kropid said, adding: "He understands the area's needs and the area's strengths."

The Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation, which supports scholarships, economic development, arts, human services and more, was formed in 1983 as the region's population and economy were in decline. Since then, the nonprofit has distributed more than $60 million in grants.

Floerke said the COVID-19 pandemic has given the foundation an opportunity to more closely examine the region's systems and safety nets, referencing its existing Opportunity Rising initiative aimed at providing equal access to education, employment and other resources.

"I think COVID has really exposed some of the gaps and some of the isolation," Floerke said. "I think the opportunity now is to be listening to our community."

Floerke told Gov. Tim Walz he will resign effective Jan. 1. When he starts his new position, Floerke said he has a lot of learning to do, especially about the donor side of the industry.

He didn't expect to leave the court so suddenly but said Daniel Lew — a public defender and member of the foundation's board — urged him to apply for the role a few weeks ago. And once Floerke started thinking about it, he couldn't stop.

"I think it comes as no surprise that the judicial bureaucracy is not the most creative place on earth," he said. "And looking at the impact that the foundation can have … in the broader community is super promising to me."

Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478