Thursday, April 24, 2014

Fleeting Moments of Beauty

During my 26+ years serving as a District Court Judge, I have spent a significant amount of time on the road, traveling to other courthouses to preside as well as on other official business.  Over that time, I have put on well over 200,000 miles in service of the State of Minnesota, and this doesn’t even count the daily 16-mile round trip to the Sibley County Courthouse!

A lot of the time, the commute has been routine, even dull.  Listening to the radio or a book on tape (OK, I’m dating myself once again!) passes some of the time.

Occasionally, however, the unexpected brings me back to realize the beauty of this world.  One such time I was traveling to court in the morning, north about 14 miles of pretty straight county road.  The sun was rising to my right.  It was up just enough to illuminate the breast of a rooster pheasant standing on the side of the road, making his brightly colored feathers seems almost ablaze.  How lucky I was, I thought, to have such beauty to help me start the day.

Then, a mile or so later, another pheasant with the same blazing colors firing my imagination.  Then another and another.

By the time I had turned off that road, I had passed six rooster pheasants, each one blazing more brilliantly in the morning sun than the one I had passed earlier.  An amazing trip!

Another morning, the dew was heavy as the sun rose.  As the road turned from heading north to east, the sun struck the dew on hundreds – no, thousands! – of spider webs in the tall grass of the road ditch.  Mile after mile of sparkling diamonds suspended between the grasses in magnificent patterns.  It was prayer-inspiring!

The final mental image I will recall happened one evening as I was heading home from court or a meeting.  As I turned to head west, my rearview mirror was almost completely filled by a breathtaking full moon just above the horizon. 

The moon followed me for perhaps a half hour, when either it rose or I turned.  While that full moon continued to be beautiful to behold, the stunning splendor I had first seen in the mirror was gone.

Far too seldom, I rouse myself out of routine to watch for the surprising beauty that surrounds each of us every day.  I whisper a prayer of thanks for the opportunity to quit worrying about the past or planning for the future to enjoy the exquisite beauty of the present.

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Next Week:  Making Policy

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Picking a Jury

Jury selection is the first, and very possibly the most important part of a jury trial.  Prospective jurors are placed under oath and the judge and attorneys ask questions to determine if they can be fair and impartial in the trial.

This process, called voire dire (to speak the truth) seeks to eliminate potential jurors who have preconceived opinions on how the trial should end up or has prejudices (conscious or subconscious) which would prevent them from listening to the evidence and the judge’s instructions on the law.

The questions are usually pretty straightforward:  Have you ever served on a jury before?  Do you know any of the witnesses?  If so, would you be able to consider their testimony in the same manner as any other witness who may testify?  Do you have any problem serving on a jury that may last X days?  Have you been convicted of a felony?  (One juror told us, under oath, that he was not a felon.  It was only when the jury came in after a four-week trial that we found out he was a felon.  That jury verdict needed to be thrown out…)

In one criminal case I tried, the defendant was Hispanic who did not speak English.  Even today, there are people who are prejudiced against people of color, so I needed to ask if there was anyone on the jury panel who could not presume the defendant innocent simply because of his race.  One juror raised his hand, and said he could not judge a Hispanic fairly and impartially.  The juror had an Irish surname.

Naturally, I dismissed the prospective juror from the panel.  But before I did, I said, “It is really sad that a person of our Irish heritage could be prejudiced against people coming to this country to find a better life, as our ancestors were forced from their native land because of a famine.  When they reached this land, they, too were discriminated against.  Cartoons in papers depicted Irishmen as baboons.  Help wanted signs included ‘No Irish Need Apply’.  How is it that we have forgotten the injustice of ignorant prejudice and become the bigots ourselves?”

(I must admit that the real words I used at the time were far less eloquent than those above, but the sentiments were identical.)

The vase majority of jurors summoned do their best to set aside any preconceived notions of how the case should end and promise to listen to the evidence, apply the law that the judge gives and give a fair an impartial verdict.  THAT is the main reason why the American system of Justice is the best in the world!

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Next Week:  Fleeting Moments of Beauty

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Staff Attorneys

A few years after I was appointed a judge, the caseload per judge increased dramatically.  That increase in case load meant that judges often did not have the time to conduct legal research necessary to accurately decide a case.  It was decided that it would be most cost effective for each judge to have an attorney to assist the judge with the research, drafting orders and other tasks.

The pay for law clerks is lower than many starting salaries for associates in law firms or becoming employed in the public sector.  The law clerks, however, gain valuable experience observing and working for the judges.

Over the 26 years, I have had 16 staff attorneys, commonly called law clerks.  (Actually, my 17th started just this week!)  Many judges prefer to have one competent clerk for as long as possible, as it can be somewhat of a chore to train in a new staff attorney.  I have opted for the more traditional approach to employing clerks:  They are expected to work one to two years, and then move on to a more traditional legal position.

I have had some clerks that have stayed for almost two years, and others that were gone within six months.  I have taken great pleasure in watching these young attorneys start out on their careers. 

There was a time, during a budget crisis, that a freeze on hiring law clerks was put in place.  For several months, I was without a clerk (until that budget crisis finally passed) I worked without a clerk and did my own legal research.  I commented at the time that I was the highest paid law clerk in the State of Minnesota. These young attorneys, trained in using computers for legal research, were significantly more efficient doing legal research than my method of pulling the books off the shelf, and retyping the language from the cases that needed to be in my decision. 

I have worked with law clerks who were of all political persuasions.  I have worked with a college football player and a Iraq war veteran and National Guard officer – each young attorney brings experiences to the office that I have never experienced.  I have tried to be a mentor to these intelligent, motivated and dedicated young attorneys.  

But I can guarantee that I have learned more from working with them than they have from me.
It was been a privilege and a pleasure.

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Next Week:  Picking a Jury

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Oath of Citizenship

One of the two oaths that I have administered that I consider the highlights of my professional life happened on April 9, 2005 at the 152nd Annual Communication of the Grand Lodge of Minnesota held in St Louis Park, Minnesota. 

Andy Rice was born and raised in England.  He came to Minnesota, met and fell in love with Chris and settled in to a successful career.  He became a Mason and rose to the highest position in Minnesota Masonry – Grand Master.  I had had the opportunity to work with Andy on the Board of Directors of the Grand Lodge of Minnesota for several years, and we became good friends. 

Andy told me that his dream was to become an American citizen the day he became Grand Master.  He had completed the process of naturalization, but there was one obstacle:  Normally, the oath of citizenship was given by a Federal District Court Judge.  I had met Federal Judge Donovan Frank when he was a Minnesota District Court judge and we both served on the Conference of Chief Judges.  With Judge Frank’s help, we convinced the Department of Homeland Security that it was just fine for me to administer the oath of citizenship at this important event.

Thus it was that, mere minutes after being installed as Grand Master, Andy Rice raised his right hand and took an oath that has been around since George Washington’s time: 

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

With his son in his Cub Scout uniform standing next to him, Andy pledged allegiance to the flag of his adoptive country for the first time.    After which, a couple hundred small American flags were waived in the audience and a huge cheer went up.  A very proud moment for all present – especially for me, the judge who had the privilege of administering the oath!

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Next Week:  Staff Attorneys