A judge’s story

Six months in the life of a judicial rookie

Moments of wonder, moments of despair.

This is what I expected when I left my position as a partner with the Minneapolis law firm of Robins Kaplan Miller & Ciresi to become a Hennepin County District Court judge. It was not easy to leave a successful practice with an excellent national law firm.

But the die was cast in 1997 when my wife and I found we would become first time parents at an age older than most.

I had a new motivation to rethink my future, and consider what was most important in life.

I wanted to be there to see my son grow up. And I remembered something that I had heard in 1970 when Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas spoke at our law school, urging us to a life of public service. He cautioned that it would be hard to leave a successful law practice. "Beware the gravy train, for once on, it is difficult to get off," he said. He was right, of course. But now I had financial freedom. I decided to apply for a judgeship.

In May 2002, Gov. Ventura announced my appointment as a state trial court judge. In August, I began a new career.

August

A new judge spends the first few weeks watching experienced judges at work. The judges were wonderful. They were patient. They gave me pointers, taught me nuances.

One judge told me about the old days when there was no orientation. On his first day, he entered the courtroom unsure of what to do. There was a throng of people waiting for him to begin. All eyes were on him. He was about to freeze. Then he remembered some advice given by a senior judge. "Proceed," he said, and suddenly the work of the court began! Lawyers stepped up, cases were called, and the business of the court swung into gear.

I remembered that story on September 30, 2002, when I heard my first case.

September/October

I began that Monday in Brookdale misdemeanor arraignment court with great anticipation, and no small amount of trepidation. As a lawyer, I learned that nervousness, and even fear, can work in your favor if you can just control them. They give you an edge that you never want to completely lose, for when you do, you run a greater risk of complacency and mistake. I took that knowledge to heart as I began my first day.

The judge enters the courtroom in the morning, and already seated are 50 to 100 people whose cases are scheduled to be heard. Some of the people are charged with gross misdemeanors, such as certain assaults, and some domestic abuse charges. Some people are appearing on misdemeanor charges such as disorderly conduct or driving after revocation of their license. Some people are not appearing on criminal matters at all, but on petty misdemeanors, which are punishable by only a fine.

The judge appears first to advise defendants of their rights to a trial, the procedures that will be followed in court and the opportunity the defendants have to obtain an attorney, or to dispose of their case by agreement with the prosecutor. The judge then leaves the bench so that the defendants can check in with the court clerk, or apply to see a public defender, or meet with the prosecutor to try to reach a plea agreement, or all of the above.

Many people are in court for their first time, and they are unsure what to do. They listen anxiously, as I try to speak in a tone and at a pace that at least gives them a chance to understand what is going to happen. There are others who have been in court so many times I would not be entirely surprised if they could give the morning speech themselves.

Perhaps there was nothing extraordinary about my first day on the bench, but you couldn't convince me of that at the time. The simple act of taking a plea, so easy for me now, took all of my concentration. Lawyers came into my chambers to ask me what my position was on sentencing so that they could advise their clients whether to plead guilty before me. Sometimes I could answer them, and sometimes I had to smile and remind them that I was a new judge without a track record.

Police came in with complaints to be reviewed for a probable cause determination. I was asked to set bail on numerous people who were either going to stay in jail or get out depending on my decision.

Daily I better understood my role. Sometimes the lessons were dead serious, and sometimes they were just plain funny.

On my third day on the bench, I entered the courtroom and the bailiff called out for everyone to rise. As I approached my seat, I leaned down to ask the clerk a quick question. She answered, and I followed up with one more question. The exchange took about one minute. As I straightened up to take my seat, I looked up at the assembled group. They were all patiently standing, waiting for the judge to be seated. I couldn't help an embarrassed smile, and as I asked everyone to be seated, I promised myself that I would be seated more quickly in the future!

I was struck that first day by the number of drunk drivers who appear in court, and especially by the severity of some of the cases. The blood alcohol limit in Minnesota is .10, but in those early days, a man appeared before me with a blood alcohol reading of .37, his third DWI in the past few years; a driver who rolled his car because he had a blood alcohol content of .33; and a white collar executive whose blood alcohol reached the incredible level of .483. He was found slumped over his steering wheel, at a stoplight.

Persons with such high blood alcohol contents are usually alcoholics, but they are particularly dangerous because they insist on drinking and driving. Knowing how to deal with the repeat drunk driver is not simple because there is no stock answer. Everyone is different, and everyone has a different capacity for change.

DWI sentencing has been one of my first confrontations with a courthouse culture that is sometimes more lenient than the community at large. This is not necessarily a criticism. Few judges aspire to be known as tough, or without mercy. Our jails have more than enough people in them, and the cause of a drunk driving incident may be an alcohol addiction that needs treatment, not incarceration. Yet, there are certain misdemeanors that bring issues of public safety clearly into focus. Each case, then, requires a judge to weigh public safety and the possibility of individual redemption.

Early lessons

One of the hardest challenges is to try to stay focused on every case, and to treat every case as the most important one of the day. That is no easy task when there are 90 cases on the schedule--or, as occurred on one day, 134 cases, including a court trial requiring an interpreter.

A judge's focus is vital to the quality of justice. One day, a young Latino man came before me. Assisted by a translator, he tried to plead guilty to using a false identity card in aid of a theft.

He admitted that he took a check to a bank, that he had a false identity card with him, and that he used the false identity card to successfully cash the check. When his defense attorney finished questioning his client, I asked him if he wanted to continue, because I did not think that his questioning was complete. The defense attorney and the prosecutor both assured me that the defendant had admitted to facts that constituted the offence.

I decided to make my own inquiry. I asked the young man whose check it was that he was cashing. He told me that it was his. I asked him to whom the check was made out, and he told me it was made out to him. I asked him what the check was in payment for, and he told me that it was for a car- washing job that he had completed. He even gave me the business card of the person who had written out the check. I then called both attorneys before me and suggested that they might want to call the person who drafted the check because if the young man's statement was true (and I had no reason to disbelieve him) he was not guilty of the offense with which he was charged. He may have used a false identity card, but it was not used in aid of a theft. The check he was cashing appeared to be a legitimate paycheck for work he performed.

As the translator completed telling the young man what I had said, he turned, smiled and said, "muchas gracias."

For me, that was one of the moments of wonder.

As October progressed, I became more comfortable handling cases. Rulings that I had heard thousands of times before, coming from a judge, were now coming from me. "Overruled", "sustained," "that goes to the weight of the evidence, not its admissibility." This was a role that I loved.

I found that coming to a decision, however, is not always as easy as it should be. In my first probation revocation hearing, a procedure that can send a person to jail, I found that the prosecuting attorney had not met the required burden of proof. I did not revoke probation.

My heart wished otherwise, because the basis for this revocation proceeding was the beating the defendant reportedly gave his 7-year-old son for wetting his bed. The beating left the child with deep bruises on his back, buttocks and legs. The defendant testified, denying the allegations, but there were abundant reasons not to believe him. The defendant would not even acknowledge his prior conviction for giving false testimony to a police officer, claiming in the face of official court records that he did not remember the conviction.

However, I still had to rule that the prosecutor met the burden of proof, which I could not do. I poured over my notes and ordered a written transcript of the proceedings to see if there was testimony that I might have missed. I found the necessary evidence had simply not been presented.

This hearing drove home to me what I already knew intellectually--that my obligation as a judge requires that I be impartial, with no interest in the matter's outcome. It is not always an emotionally easy task. But in this case the necessary result was clear.

As October ended, another misdemeanor domestic abuse case demonstrated how difficult a judge's decisions can be.

A man appeared before me after being charged with domestic abuse for twice punching his wife in the side of the head. He reportedly got angry because his two year- old would not say hello to him. Now, the man's wife wanted the "No Contact" order (preventing her husband from living with her, calling her or otherwise contacting her) ended.

I met with the prosecutor, the defense attorney, and the wife's advocate in my chambers. I was told that this was a first-time occurrence, and that it was an aberration. I was told that his wife missed him, and his child wanted him back. His wife claimed that she was not going to leave the courthouse without him; she now felt sorry she had called the police.

However, the wife had also said that there had been a 10-year history of abuse. I decided not to terminate the "No Contact" order. But soon after, the parties came to me with a plea agreement; the defendant would receive domestic abuse training, but would also be released from the no contact order and would be allowed to return home.

I was no longer going to stand in the way of doing what these two people were intent to do. But I at least wanted to address the wife to be sure that she did not harbor any fear that the incident would be repeated. I leaned forward and told her that when she called 911, she did the right thing. I told her that she should not listen to anyone who would tell her otherwise, and that if another incident occurred, she should call 911 again. I was a bit heartened when not only the wife, but even the husband nodded in agreement.

November

In early November I presided over my first juvenile court proceeding, juvenile detentions. Young people who have been arrested are brought before the court so that a decision can be made whether they will be released to their parent or guardian, kept in detention or a shelter, or placed in a county home school.

I experienced highs and lows that first week. A young man of Somali descent was brought in after he pulled out a knife, and threatened to use it, at a family confrontation. He lived with his grandmother who spoke only Somali. A cousin spoke on behalf of the family. The cousin explained that the family wanted the young man back--without the electronic bracelet being recommended for home detention.

Though the bracelet was small and fit under a pant leg, the family regarded it as a sign of slavery. The family preferred that the young man stay in detention rather than receive electronic home monitoring.

Then, the grandmother spoke through an interpreter. She wore traditional dress. She was aged, but she had a regal bearing. She said that she was raising the boy because his parents were dead. She had raised several children. This one, she told me, was the best. He was smart. He was a good student. He had won a scholarship. He had a 3.9 grade average out of 4.0 in his school. She was proud of him. She wanted him back home. She had no good explanation for what happened, only that she was certain it would not happen again. She was eloquent, and could not be stopped!

I finally held up my hand to indicate to her that I had heard enough. I addressed the young man, telling him that I was releasing him to his grandmother's custody. The young man rose before he spoke to me. His manner and speech were as modern and Minnesotan as his grandmother's was old country. He assured me that I would not be sorry with my decision. I was certain that he was correct. After the proceeding, what seemed like the entire extended family filed out of the tiny courtroom. I couldn't help but smile. The young man was in good hands.

I was not smiling after the next appearance. An 11-year-old boy was accused of raping his 3-year-old brother. The boy clearly was not going home. Crying, the mother addressed me, asking if the boy would be released in time to visit his father out of state for Christmas. I thought she might simply be in shock, or her idea of what was most important at that moment showed the level of dysfunction in the family.

I saw repeatedly that parents were the key factor in juvenile proceedings, and that cases knew no boundaries of race, religion, ethnicity, or economic status.

When parents showed love and concern, I usually had a good feeling that the child would not see the inside of a courtroom again. But other parents seemed in denial that their child had a problem, or seemed not to care.

Next issue: when the police keep coming to your door, a first-degree murder case, and the humor of the courtroom.