Thursday, February 28, 2013

Taking the Oath

On February 12, 1988, I stood in front of the judge’s bench in the Sibley County Courtroom, and took the oath of office as a Minnesota District Court Judge.  Patty then helped me don the official black robe for the first time.  Wow! 

The Courtroom was full of family, friends and well-wishers.  So full that the judge who administered the oath said that Sheriff Graham must have emptied the jail to get that many people to come!  Several judges from the First Judicial District also came to give me their congratulations and warm wishes. 

“I, Thomas G McCarthy, do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States of America and the Constitution of the State of Minnesota and to discharge faithfully the duties of a District Court Judge to the best of my judgment and ability, so help me God.”

I was then given the opportunity to make a few remarks.  I thanked my parents, of course, who gave me the two best gifts a parent can give:  roots and wings.  I thanked my first law partner, Everett Young, who not only taught me the value of preparation but more importantly of service to my community.  I thanked Governor Perpich for giving me this great opportunity to serve.  I thanked my children for their support.  And most of all, I thanked Patty.  All those meals of macaroni and cheese or Ramen noodles, helping me through law school and starting a law practice – not to mention correcting all my spelling and grammar errors! 

I must admit that about the only downside to becoming a judge was the reality that I would not be working with Patty any more.  She had agreed to fill in, temporarily, when I needed secretarial help at the law office some 10 years before.  Somehow, I never got around to finding a replacement!  I know how fortunate that I was, as many husbands absolutely could not work with their spouse, but working with Patty was a joy and she was an absolute asset to me and our law practice.

After the swearing in, we adjourned to the meeting room in the Courthouse Annex basement for punch, coffee and some of Dora Kuester’s great sheet cake.  More photos, more congratulations and some mementos, including a small plaque that hangs in my office to this day:  “Grow in Wisdom before the Lord.”  A sentiment to which every judge should aspire!

I was officially a judge!

*  *  *  *  *

Next week:  Mentors

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Meeting the Governor

I had submitted my application to succeed Judge Bull on the Sibley County District Court bench.  I was named one of three finalists and was waiting to hear Governor Perpich’s decision.  I knew from other recently appointed judges that sometimes the Governor interviewed his finalists and other times just made the decision and informed the candidate.

Patty and I were home one January evening.  Our children were at school.  I had just commented that we should be hearing a decision soon, as the necessary background checks should have been completed, when the telephone rang.


“Is this Thomas McCarthy?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Is this the Thomas McCarthy who is an attorney at law?”

“Yes it is.”

“Hello, Thomas.  This is Rudy Perpich calling.”

The heart rate about tripled!  The governor wanted to meet with me the next day.  He invited me to come to the Governor’s Mansion at 7:00 a.m., before he was to have breakfast with former Governor Orville Freeman.  Wow!

I walked into the other room and told Patty, “I don’t know if this is an interview or if he is going to tell me I have the appointment, but you and the kids are going with me to meet the Governor tomorrow morning!”  I really didn’t know if this would help or hurt, but if I were going to be a judge, it was a decision that affected the entire family.

And so it was that shortly before 7 a.m. the next day, we were ushered into the mansion to meet the Governor.

Governor Perpich was a gracious host.  We talked for perhaps 20 minutes – and I didn’t know whether this was an interview or an announcement until he picked up a pen and signed a photograph, “Congratulations, Judge McCarthy!”

I imposed on his staff to take a few photos with the camera I’d brought along.  Fortunately, the Governor had a few more taken with a Polaroid, as it wasn’t till we were home that I realized I’d forgotten to put film in the camera!  (For you younger readers, that was something we had to do in the olden days to have photographs!)
When Mark, our fourth-grader at the time, got to school his teacher asked where he’d been.  “We were at the Governor’s house!  My dad is going to be a judge!”  To which his teacher replied, “Mark, really, where have you been?”

Next Week:  Taking the Oath

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Applying to be Judge

In the fall of 1987, Judge Kenneth Bull announced he would retire by the end of the year.  When a sitting judge retires, the Constitution of Minnesota provides that the Governor makes an appointment to that bench and the appointee serves until the next general election more than one year after the appointment.  Rudy Perpich was Governor at the time.  Even though I would have preferred to have had a few more years as a practicing attorney, I knew that it might be another 20 years before such an opportunity would come up again, so I submitted my application.

In 1987, in order to be considered for judicial appointment or election, one first had to be a licensed attorney living in the district to be served.  Having met those minimum qualifications, I filled out the application forms and asked for (and received) many letters of recommendation.

The process then was similar to the one now required by statute:  The applications were submitted to the Governor’s office and then forwarded to a statewide screening panel.  From the applications received, the panel would forward three to five well-qualified attorneys’ names to the Governor, who then appointed one of them to the bench.

Unlike the current process, the panel in 1987 rarely interviewed candidates.  I was named one of three candidates chosen as a finalist for the Sibley County District Court bench.

Those three names were submitted to the Minnesota Revenue Department (to be sure there were no outstanding tax issues), the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (to check on past or pending criminal matters) and to the Lawyers Board of Professional Responsibility (to see if there were any past or pending ethics violations claims against the candidate).  The three finalists’ names, as well as the results of the background checks were then to be submitted to Governor Perpich’s office for decision.  The Governor sometimes conducted interviews of the finalists and sometimes simply chose one of them as his judicial appointment. 

The background investigation took several weeks, during which of course my family and I (as well as my law partner, Dave Schauer) were on pins and needles.  We were most anxious to know, one way or the other, what the Governor’s decision would be, so we could plan for the next stage of our lives.

Next week, I’ll write about how I was contacted by the Governor’s office and found out I would be named judge. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013


 This month marks my 25th anniversary of becoming a Minnesota District Court Judge chambered in Sibley County.  For a quarter of a century I have had the privilege of serving the citizens of the First Judicial District as a trial court judge.

I intend to take the next year or more to reflect on the honor I have had to aid in the administration of justice for the citizens of Sibley County, the First Judicial District and the State of Minnesota.  I expect that I will write about some interesting cases I have considered.  I will write about serving on the Conference of Chief Judges, the governing body at the time of the third branch of government.  I will relate several of my “nickel speeches” on jury service, education, child custody and juveniles using tobacco.  I will reflect on the thousands of miles I have driven as a part of my job when the docket was clear in Sibley County and I was needed to help out elsewhere.

I will tell of my mentors on the bench, of applying to succeed Judge Kenneth Bull when he retired, of receiving the call from the Governor and the day the oath of office was administered to me.  I’ll relive the frightening and yet exciting day I first presided over cases involving real people and real issues.  And I will recount the continuing challenge to remember that, after so many years it may be just another day at the office for me, yet it is the most important day in the lives of those appear before me.

I’ll talk about second chances and people who have used up all their chances and need to go to prison – or to a mental institution. 

I’m writing this mainly for myself, though I hope my grandchildren will find it interesting at some point.  I hope that you, too, may find some hints of what it is like to be a trial court judge in what has been described as the worst system of Justice in the world – except for all the others!  I hope to convey the tedium of hearing routine cases week after week and the huge sense of accountability when faced with a decision that will alter the course of the lives of the people I’m dealing with, or, perhaps, set a different course for the law in this State.

Let me know what you think of this effort and if there is something about the life and work of a trial court judge that may interest you.  Thanks for reading this.  I’ll be back next week with a piece on how I applied to become a District Court Judge.