Friday, August 30, 2013

Bonus Blog!

One of my most-admired colleagues retired this week after over 24 years on the District Court Bench.  Judge Edward Lynch served the people of Minnesota with distinction over his career, presiding over high-profile cases with dignity and competence.  He served as Chief Judge of the First Judicial District for several years, and has been a valuable asset on many statewide judicial committees.

As a parting gift to the staff of the District, Judge Lynch sent out a beautiful poem that sums up well the tasks faced by trial court judges.  It is reprinted here, with his permission.  Best wishes for a long, happy and healthy retirement, Ed!

Becoming a Judge

When you grow weary of lawyering, the stress and the strife
When you realize you want more purpose and meaning in your life
When you can leave behind the advocacy that defined your career
And embrace neutrality and solitude without hesitation or fear


When you can see in every criminal a trace of good

When you can follow your conscience and do what you should

Despite public pressure or media presence

And temper justice with mercy as you pronounce your sentence

When you are able to help lawyers and litigants reach resolutions
When you focus on the kids and not the parents in dissolutions
When all around you is chaos but you remain calm
And apply to society's wounds the law's healing balm

When you recognize the conflicts and strive to accommodate

When you overlook minor irritations and decline to intimidate

When you ease those before you: the frightened and nervous

With compassion, understanding and a commitment to service

When you look beyond the cases scheduled before you
And understand the ramifications of all that you do

On the administration of justice and the public’s perception
And conduct your life honorably, without exception

When you accept there is nothing routine about the matters you see
Because they involve peoples' freedom, property or family

When you can appreciate the tragedy and humor cases can have
But hide the tears and suppress the laugh


When you earn the respect of others and the community’s trust

When you’re considered fair, impartial, patient and just,

When you understand that the process is as important as the end

Then, then you will be a judge, my friend.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Choices We Make

Have you ever stopped to consider how many choices you make every day?  Big choices, little choices.  Important choices, trivial choices.  Choices that only matter for a short time, and choices that you live with for the rest of your life.

One choice I made as a teenager was pulling the chair out from under a classmate who was about to sit down.  I guess I thought it would be a clever thing to do, but the hurt I saw on her face bothers me to this day.  I continue to pay the consequence for this thoughtless act.
In my work as a judge, I see people who must answer for the consequences of their acts every day.  During my years as a judge, I have come across remarkably few truly evil people – and for that, I am most grateful.  For the most part, I come across basically decent people who have done really stupid things.

But even decent people must pay the consequences for the choices they make.  And, because we are people, we will make bad decisions from time to time.  Whether it’s, trashing someone else’s property, drinking alcohol before one is 21, driving while under the influence…  No one is able to lead a perfect life.  We all, every one of us, make poor choices.  And we, each one of us, have to suffer the consequences of our actions.

But, on the other hand, when we make a mistake, even a horrible mistake, it is not the end of the world.  Consequences must be paid, but we can and we must recover. 

The choices we make, we have to live with them.  I have to live with pulling a chair out from under a schoolmate.  Another has to live with causing the death of his best friend. 

The book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, has lots of simple guides to living a more purposeful life.  One of them is “You can’t talk your way out of something you acted your way into.”  You spend years and year building up your reputation, but one stupid, thoughtless act can bring it down.  You can, and you will say, “I’m sorry,”  But actions do truly speak louder than words. 

My mom used to tell us kids that “Sorry doesn’t make it better.”  And it really doesn’t.  The hurt is still there.  Her favorite vase is still broken.  Only time and effort and acting as you want to be remembered can make it better.

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Next week:  Continuing Education

Thursday, August 22, 2013

More on Search Warrants

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how judges issue search warrants.  These are often very serious and very urgent decisions that need to be made.  Officers may be searching for a weapon used in a homicide, or drugs, or child pornography.

Not all search warrants are life and death matters, however.  I had one search warrant experience when I was the Sibley County Attorney that was actually pretty funny.

I received a call late one night that the Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer (when I was growing up, we called them “Game Wardens”) had received a tip that a deer was being processed in a garage in Sibley County.  It was not deer season.

I met the Conservation Officer and several other law enforcement officers at the law office.  (Fortunately, Sibley County is a pretty boring place for police officers most nights.  When something out of the ordinary happens, especially something that is urgent but not necessarily dangerous – like a search warrant - lots of help arrives!)  I was typing up the affidavit to show Judge Bull that we had probable cause to go to the garage to investigate the apparent crime of taking a deer out of season. 

We worked on the warrant for probably a half hour or more.  I needed two more pieces of information before the application was complete, and we’d call Judge Bull to wake him up to consider our application.  I told the officers I’d finish up what I could, and I’d meet them at the Sheriff’s office to get the remaining information, that I’d then type in and we’d call the judge.

I finished typing and drove the eight miles to the county seat.  It was well after midnight by the time I arrived at the Sheriff’s Office.  When I parked the car, the Conservation Officer came up and asked, “Can we call this search off?”  I replied that I sure would like to avoid being embarrassed later if we didn’t have probable cause to search the garage, and asked him what had changed.

“Well,” the officer said, “I just remembered that I have a receipt for a car-killed deer that was issued to our suspect.”  The deer was being processed legally!

This was long enough ago that Lyle’s CafĂ© in Winthrop – home of the Pie Lady of Winthrop, who was still baking pies daily – was still open 24 hours.  The Conservation Officer bought pie and coffee for me and about eight other officers that night! 

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Next week:  The Choices We Make

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Jury Duty!

A couple of weeks ago, I received an official-looking letter from the Jury Commissioner, Sibley County Court Administration.  Along with about 199 other citizens of Sibley County, I had been summoned for jury duty!

The process of selecting jurors involves randomly selecting them from a list of names compiled from the voter registration lists and drivers licenses issued in each county of Minnesota.  Terms of jury service vary a lot, depending on the size of the county and the number of trials.  In some counties, a prospective juror reports each day for one week, and then is excused at that time or at the conclusion of the trial for which he or she is chosen.  In others, like Sibley, a juror is on call for, say, four months, but receives mailed notice if he or she is to report for a trial the following week.  They are also told to call in to the jury line the night before to be certain the case has not settled.  (Such cases often will settle at the last minute.)

Along with the summons was included a questionnaire that I was required to answer to determine whether or not I am qualified to serve as a juror.  I am a United States citizen.  I am over age 18.  I am a resident of Sibley County.  I can communicate in English.  I do not have a physical or mental disability that would affect my ability to serve on a jury.  I have never been convicted of a felony.  And I have not served on a jury within the past four years.

I am not 70 years or older.  (Folks over 70 have the option to be excused from jury service, if they wish.)

So, I’m down to the last question on whether I am qualified for jury service:

“Are you a judge in the judicial branch?”

Well, yes I am.  And that fact disqualifies me from serving as a juror.

I do spend some time every four months considering requests from prospective jurors to excuse or postpone their service.  There are really very few such requests.  Most people summoned, though they may not be thrilled at the prospect of jury duty, are more than willing to do their civic duty.  Some, however, are prohibited from their religious beliefs to serve as jurors.  Others have desperate situations at home that make it virtually impossible to serve.  Others have projects at work for several months, and ask that they do their jury service after that project is complete.  Still others are students attending school far away from Sibley County. 

I try to be as considerate and fair as possible, while requiring citizens to do their duty when called.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Search Warrants

We’ve all seen police or court shows where the officer goes to the judge’s home, interrupting dinner or a card game, to have a search warrant signed.  Well, that does, in fact, happen in real life.  Only it’s usually not dinner or a card game that’s disturbed – it’s usually sleep that’s interrupted.

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution provides “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

To obtain a search warrant, an officer must complete an affidavit in which he/she swears to the facts which will support probable cause to disturb a person’s home, etc., to search for evidence of a crime.  This is then presented to a judge, who administers an oath something like “Do you swear the information contained in this application for search warrant is true, to the best of your knowledge and belief?”  The judge then reviews the application and if probable cause if found, authorizes the search warrant.

The judge also has to determine whether it is necessary to execute the search warrant during the nighttime hours and also if a “no knock” (unannounced entry) is required for officer safety.

The officers then take the warrant and search the home/car/building/person described.  They must inventory any evidence seized, leaving a copy of the inventory with the suspect and filing the original in Court. 

Most of the search warrants I have done involve looking for drugs.  It’s very interesting to see a law enforcement officer who is working undercover – they often look as scruffy as those we see on the TV shows.  On the other hand, some of the saddest search warrants I’ve reviewed involve the seizure of a computer to look for child pornography. 

While I didn’t issue this warrant, I have seen a warrant authorizing the placement of a GPS monitoring system on the truck of a person suspected of stealing copper wire.  I saw that warrant in a case where the suspect had been charged with, you guessed it, stealing copper wire.

The test of a judge’s ability in reviewing and signing search warrants comes when a suspect is arrested and charged, and his attorney makes a motion to suppress (that is, “don’t let the jury see”) the evidence seized by the warrant because there was no probable cause, or the judge has made another mistake. 

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Next Week:  Jury Duty

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Everybody Leaves the Courtroom Happy

Courtrooms normally are not happy places.  People come to court who have been accused of crimes, from speeding tickets to murder charges.  Ventures that have started with “I do” and a pledge “till death do us part” come to court to bury a marriage relationship that has died.  Domestic partners come to seek orders preventing an abusive partner from having any contact. 

Folks come to court to seek to regain custody of their children, who have been removed because they were in need of protection from their own parents, or services that their parents were unwilling or unable to provide.

People come to court seeking money damages for a wrong that has been done to them by another person or corporation. 

And in just about every one of these situations, at least one, if not all, parties to the action leave the courtroom disappointed, if not angry at the judge’s decision. 

But there is one hearing presiding over that every judge enjoys:  adoptions.

Sometimes Mom has remarried, either after Dad has died or the parents divorced, and step-dad wishes to make the children his own.  Sometimes the parents are not able to take care of the children and they have been permanently removed from their care – their parental rights being terminated.  Sometimes the parents-to-be have literally traveled halfway around the world to bring their children home.

The adoptive parents sit at the counsel table and are sworn.  The reports from social services are in the file, approving the adoption.  There are a few routine questions:  Do you understand that if the Court grants your petition, you will be assuming all of the rights, as well as the responsibilities of parenting this child?  You will be, for all purposes except genetic, this child’s parent? 

They always say yes.

Then, if the child is old enough, or there is an older sibling present, I’ll ask, “Now, if I sign this paper, that means that Peter is going to be your brother.  Do you want me to sign it?”

They always say yes.

Then, the cameras come out.  Cameras are not permitted in Minnesota Courtrooms, but all judges make an exception to have a photo taken with the adoptive parents and their new child.  Often, the siblings join in for a great photo.

And everybody is smiling.

An adoption is the only case where it is an absolute certainty that everyone leaves the courtroom happy.

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Next Week:  Search Warrants