Thursday, September 26, 2013

A Night in Jail

During a quarter of a century on the bench, I have pronounced jail sentences for perhaps hundreds of people.  (I try not to say that “I sent him to jail.”  He committed the act that required the jail sentence.  I simply made it official.)

A lot of people who have never been in jail wonder what it is like.   I can tell you, sort of…

The Sibley County Jail was expanded in 1995.  Once the construction was complete, the staff hired and procedures established, all that was necessary for them to open for business was a test run. 

Thus it was, on a summer night, I went to the Sibley County Jail to join with several other citizens who volunteered to be “prisoners” for the jail staff to practice their procedures and work out any kinks in the system.

I was first placed in a holding cell, while the men who had arrived before me were processed.  The cell is small, with only a concrete bench.  I was there for about a half hour before being brought into the booking room.

I was photographed – the standard front and side mug shots.  My fingerprints were taken – using ink on paper instead of the electronic scanners we use now.  I was then given an orange jump suit and shown to a cell.  Actually, there were four cells off of one day room.  The furniture was poly covered iron.  The bed was metal, with a thin mattress and a plastic pillow – quite uncomfortable.

I was in the cell for maybe an hour when the door opened, and a local officer said, “Judge?  We need a warrant signed.  Don’t worry – I put the suspect in the holding cell so he wouldn’t see a prisoner signing the warrant!”

We watched television from the uncomfortable benches until lights out at 10:30.  Then onto the cots for the night.  Procedure calls for bed checks throughout the night.  The doors, of course, were heavy metal and every time the key went into the lock, it woke me up. 

At 7:00 a.m., the test run was over.  We were given orange juice, coffee and donuts.  The mug shots and fingerprint cards were given to us as souvenirs.  Our civic duty was performed and soon the jail would be open for business. 

And I knew that if I never spent another hour in a locked jail cell, it would be too soon. 

*  *  *  *  *

Next week:  War on Terror

Thursday, September 19, 2013


Some of the saddest cases involve people who are in this country illegally.  Many times they appear before me charged with relatively minor offenses, but are then held until the Department of Homeland Security decides whether or not to deport them.

One defendant was brought before me on minor charges, but I was informed by the prosecutor that they could not obtain the correct name and date of birth of the defendant.  I had him placed under oath and asked him to tell me his correct name and date of birth.  The interpreter had a hint of a smile when he told me the defendant had given a date of birth of April 31, 1963.  I had a slight smile as well when I told the defendant he’d be held, without bail, until his identification could be confirmed.

Many of the folks in this situation, however, are here to earn money and send it home to their families.  They try to fly under the radar, but a broken taillight, or cruising through a stop sign, or driving after they’ve had too much alcohol to drink will bring them to the attention of law enforcement and begin the journey back to their home – and the conditions that forced them to leave in the first place.

Another case I handled involved a person who had been in Minnesota, illegally, for over 17 years.  He supported himself and his family (wife, two children and a stepson) until his home was searched and a trace amount of cocaine and one illegal pill were found.  Normally, probation with some jail and treatment would have been the sentence.  However, the immigration service deported him to Mexico, while his wife and children remained in Minnesota.  Had I had complete discretion on how to handle the case, I think I could have come up with a more compassionate – and more just – outcome to this sad situation.

My great-great grandfather left Ireland in the 1840’s because of the potato famine.  Once he left County Cork, he never saw his family there again.  True, my great-great grandparents came to this country legally – at least I think they did.  But the desperation that drove them to leave Ireland must lead others to leave their home country today to try to make a life in the United States. 

A state court judge does not deport people who are in our country illegally.  We are required, however, to order that they be held until Homeland Security makes its decision.  While it’s a duty I am required to perform, it is a sad one.

*  *  *  *  *

Next week:   A Night in Jail

Thursday, September 12, 2013

I Pledge Allegiance

            On September 11, 2001, I had a late start in Court, so I decided to stop by the local Legion Club for a cup of coffee and a little conversation before heading to the Courthouse.  The television over the bar showed a familiar building with smoke billowing out of it.  “An airplane hit the World Trade Center,” I was told.  An accident?  No one knew.

            As I was drinking coffee and conversing with friends, an exclamation came from the television area – “Another one hit the other building!”  The apparent became obvious:  this was no accident.

            Along with the rest of the country, I walked through the next week in a daze.  Put a flag pin on my lapel.  Put a small flag out of the backseat window of my car.  Prayed for my children and my country.

            Politicians called for new laws requiring the Pledge of Allegiance to be recited in schools across the land.

            I suppose a couple of weeks had passed when I realized I didn’t need a statute or anyone’s permission to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of the day in Court.  I could just do it!

            So, I tried it.  “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen,” I said as I walked up to my place on the bench.  “I’d invite you to remain standing and join with me as we open court by pledging allegiance to our Nation’s flag.”  I turned and faced the flag and began.  And the people in the courtroom joined in.

            It was uncomfortable that first time.  For the first several weeks, in fact.  Doing something different.  Doing something few, if any, of my colleagues were doing.

            As I went to different courthouses and started opening court the same way, I eventually got used to the surprised looks and the occasional smirk.  I started to receive occasional thanks for the new ritual.  One lawyer who appeared before me was a semi-regular guest on a local radio show and talked about the Pledge on the air.

            I had a few folks who said they didn’t like it and were uncomfortable with the practice.  One attorney simply stayed out of the courtroom until court was open and the Pledge had been recited. 

            Now, more than ten years later, starting court in this way is second nature.  Rarely, I’ll be distracted as I go onto the bench and just sit down – until I see the bailiff, clerk and court reporter are standing with their hands on their hearts, waiting.  I stand again, and thank them for the reminder, and pledge allegiance to our country so that court may properly be brought to order.

            And so we may, for a brief moment, reflect on the marvel of this Country which
offers access to its justice system to all.

*  *  *  *  *

Next week:  Undocumented

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Continuing Education

In order to be licensed as an attorney, a person must have graduated from an accredited law school, pass the bar examination, take an oath and (of course) pay the required fee.  In order to continue to be a licensed attorney, one must complete 45 hours of continuing education every three years.

Judges are licensed attorneys.  We, also, are required to accumulate 45 hours of education every three years.  One of the most efficient ways of doing this is to provide a condensed course of instruction tailored specifically for judges.  Thus, the Minnesota District Judges Association and the Supreme Court Continuing Education office each provide an annual three-day conference for judges to obtain most, if not all, of their annual education requirements. 

This education conference also enables the Judges Association to have their membership business meetings.  It is also an opportunity to network with other judges from across the state to compare notes and pick up tips on doing our job more effectively and efficiently.  Providing this training to judges in a statewide conference is a very cost-effective way to provide our required education.

This week, I am attending the annual conference of the District Judges Association.  I will obtain most of my required education credits for the year.  I know I will learn tips from other judges that will make me a better judge.  Some of that education will occur in the education classes offered during the conference.  Much of the education will occur during meals, breaks and in the hospitality room.

Many days, I am the only judge in the courthouse.  It is very helpful to be able to bounce ideas off of a colleague when there is a particularly difficult legal matter to decide, or an unusual set of facts.  That is one reason why I especially look forward to this gathering.

25 years ago, when I first attended this conference, my conversations usually involved “What are your children up to these days?”  For the past several years, it has been “When are you planning to pull the plug and retire?”  I expect this will be my last District Judges Conference as an active judge.  So, not only will I learn some new ideas, catch up on what has been going on in my friends’ lives, but I will start to say good-bye.

I am looking forward to recharging my batteries. 

*  *  *  *  *

Next week:  I Pledge Allegiance