Thursday, July 31, 2014

Coffin Nails

It is illegal for a person under the age of 18 to use tobacco products in Minnesota.  They may not smoke cigarettes or cigars or use snuff or chewing tobacco.  But, if you have been near a high school in the half hour or so before classes start, odds are you’ll see one or more students smoking cigarettes.  Once in a while, they are caught, ticketed and end up in my courtroom.

And if they end up in my courtroom, they will hear the story of my mother-in-law.

I will tell them that Vivian started smoking at just about their age.  She didn’t know when she started that she would develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema. 

I tell these young people that I would not wish the death my mother-in-law endured on my worst enemy.  I tell them that Sibley County used to have a smoking education class (unfortunately dropped due to lack of funding and not enough participants) where one of the exercises was to take a very small straw – the kind sometime used to stir mixed drinks – place your lips tightly around it, pinch your nose and breath through that tiny straw.  That’s what it’s like having COPD.

I tell them what it was like to sit by her bedside at the nursing home, laboring to breath and waiting until she could have another nebulizer, that opened up the airways a little more to make breathing marginally easier.

Young people are invincible.  They are indestructible.  Something that might happen 20, 30, 40 or 50 years from now is just not important.  And odds are pretty good that they are living with adults who smoke, too, which makes it just that much more difficult. 

My brother, Dr. Mike McCarthy, spent a large part of his medical career dealing with people suffering from chemical addiction.  As a Family Practice doctor and later as Director of Medicine at an inpatient treatment program, Dr. Mike would routinely see chemically dependent patients.  As I regularly see those types of folks, too, we would often compare notes.  Dr. Mike once told me that of all the chemicals to which people can become addicted – alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin – nicotine was the hardest chemical to kick.

I know that my little sermons will normally go in one ear and out the other.  But, I still need to give it.  Because I never know if I am talking to the right young person at the right time so that the message sticks and they will take steps to quit.

I hope, in 26 years, there was at least one.

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Next Week:  The Value of Education

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Choosing a Jury in the “Olden Days”

A few weeks ago, while looking for something else in the Court Administrator’s office, a black, wooden cube, maybe 18 inches on a side, was discovered.  This cube had a cylindrical handle attached to one side, two small drawers at the bottom and a dish-like depression on the top, with a wooden cover that would swing over the dish and back again to allow access.

The minute I saw it, the name Bea Goetsch popped into my head.  I can remember, as a young attorney and a new judge, watching Chief Deputy Court Administrator Bea carry that wooden box into the courtroom at the beginning of a jury trial.  The cover over the dish was swung aside so that she could take, one-by-one, little slips of paper from the dish and read the name to choose the jurors who would be placed in the jury box for the judge and attorneys to question to see if they would be chosen to sit for the trial starting that day.

Before computers, that is, before 1994, the jury panel was chosen from a list of registered voters for Sibley County.  A committee of five persons would hand pick prospective jurors from the list of eligible voters.  (I recall the first time I ran for County Attorney a lady said I didn’t have to talk to her:  She didn’t vote so that she wouldn’t be called for jury duty!)

The prospective jurors’ names were typed on perforated paper so that each name was on a paper the same size.  Then, the slips would be folded twice and placed in the bowl of the black box.  Bea would then randomly pull names from the bowl, announcing each name in open court. 

Sometimes jurors were excused.  The slips for those jurors went in the left drawer at the bottom of the black box.  Those who were chosen to sit for the trial were placed in the right drawer. 

Now a list of registered voters is merged by computer with persons who have driver’s licenses in the County.  From that list, the computer randomly selects the number of jurors needed for the term.  Then, on the day of trial, the names of the jurors who have been summoned for jury duty that day are randomly ranked by the computer to let the Court Administrator and the Judge (but not the attorneys!) know who will be chosen first and who is on the bottom of the list.

The new system is certainly more efficient and undoubtedly fairer.  But, I sometimes miss the drama and pomp as Bea Goetsch would reach into the bowl at the top of the black box to call the next name…

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Next Week:  Coffin nails

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Court is Adjourned

What a great day!  My last day on the bench was truly memorable.  I adjourned court early to get to a cake and coffee reception at the Courthouse.  It was so very nice to have so many people stop by, sign the guestbook, and wish me well as I retired.

Then, off to Winthrop for the after-hours open house.  Oh, my, what a memorable event!  Of course, Patty was there, with my three children and seven grandchildren.  Five of my seven siblings, an aunt and uncle and several cousins came out, too.  Former law clerks, court administrators, attorneys and probation officers stopped by.  Lions Club members, brothers from the Masonic fraternity.  I had friends from my technology days for the State Court system come to my event – one all the way from Atlanta, Georgia and another from Sacramento, California! 

A Minnesota Supreme Court Justice came out to present me with a certificate of appreciation from the Supreme Court, and another from the Governor.  The Chief Judge of the First Judicial  District also presented a certificate.  I received a certificate proclaiming July 10, 2014, as “Judge Thomas G. McCarthy Day in the City of Duluth”, signed by Mayor Don Ness, my nephew.  Wow! 

My talented grandsons provided music for the evening, including one of the true highlights of the night for me:  My entire family singing “Puff the Magic Dragon.”

Back in the olden days, before Gameboys and portable DVD players, families had to entertain themselves on road trips.  The McCarthy family would play the alphabet game, the “I see …”  game and several other road games.  And we would always have a sing-along.  And the sing-along would always include “Puff”. 

Puff is not only the official McCarthy family song, it is a song of transition.  Little Jackie Paper got tired of playing with painted wings and giants’ rings, so he didn’t come to visit Puff any more.  What an appropriate song for a different kind of transition!  A transition from a professional life that I truly loved to a new stage in my life and a new set of priorities.  

The weekend was spent with grandchildren.  In a way, it was not much different than a normal, long weekend from work.  As I write this during the weekend, I wonder how it will feel come Monday morning, when I stay home and Patty goes off to work.  Not bad, I’ll bet! 

I have been so blessed in so many ways.  I can’t wait to see what the next stage brings! 

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Next week:  Choosing a jury

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Parting Glass

It is a tradition in pubs in Ireland that the final song of the evening is The Parting Glass. 

And all that I’ve done, for want of wit
            To memory now, I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
            Good night, and joy be with you all.

As I look back on a career in the law, capped as a trial court judge for 26 years, there are in fact some things I’ve done, for want of wit, that I can recall – though thankfully, not too many.

I look back on the privilege it has been to serve the people of Minnesota, of the First Judicial District of that State, and especially the people of my home in Sibley County.  I have tried my best to live up to the trust that you have placed in me by judging as best I can, with out fear or favor or the hope or promise of reward – other than that reward that comes with the knowledge that this day, I have done my duty.

When I was appointed to the bench in February, 1988, I knew that there were other candidates that knew the law better than I did.  There were others that had a bit more experience than I did at the time.  In short, there were other candidates that were at least as qualified as I was.  

But it was I that was chosen to wear the black robe and make decisions that have impacted the lives and fortunes of hundreds of people since that day I raised my right hand and took the oath of office.

Harry S Truman said, “There are probably hundreds of people better qualified than I am to be president, but they weren’t elected.”  I surely can relate to that sentiment.  I know there are smarter, more patient and likely better qualified people who could do a better job than I.  (We trust one will be appointed to take my place.)  But, they weren’t chosen to be the judge in Sibley County – I was.

So, I recall the final chorus of that Irish pub-closing song:

But since it fell unto my lot
            That I should rise, and you should not,
I gently rise and softly call
            Good night, and joy be with you all!

Thank you for this opportunity to serve you.  Good night, good bye, and Joy and Justice be with you all. 

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Next Week:  The Party’s Over …

Thursday, July 3, 2014


When I first sat at the desk previously occupied by Hon. Kenneth W. Bull, and opened the top drawer, I found a hacksaw blade with a note on it:  “Judge:  Keep this handy in case you ever get so confused that you send yourself to jail!”

There have been days, but not THAT bad!

I also found a mimeographed page that explained the hierarchy in the Courthouse.  (For those under age 50, you may not know that one of the favorite TV shows when I was growing up was Superman.  It opened with “Faster than a speeding bullet.  More powerful than a locomotive.  Leaps tall buildings in a single bound.  Look!  Up in the sky!  It’s a bird!  It’s a plane!  No, it’s SUPERMAN!”)

With that opening, here is “The Legal Hierarchy – Who’s on Top”

The District Court Judge leaps tall buildings in a single bound, is more powerful than a locomotive, is faster than a speeding bullet, walks on water, gives policy to God.

The County Court Judge (Note:  there were County Judges until the mid-1980’s) leaps short buildings in a single bound, is more powerful than a switch engine, is just as fast as a speeding bullet, walks on water if the sea is calm, talks to God.

The County Attorney leaps short buildings with a running start, is almost as powerful as a switch engine, is almost as fast as a speeding bullet, walks on water in an indoor pool, talks with God when special request is approved.

The Assistant County Attorney barely clears a Quonset hut, loses a tug of war with a locomotive, can fire a speeding bullet, swims well, occasionally is addressed by God.

The privately retained defense attorney owns tall buildings, but is in default, derails speeding trains, keeps a pistol in his desk, passes water, uses God as an expletive.

The Court Administrator makes high marks on walls when trying to leap tall buildings, is run over by locomotives, can sometimes handle a gun without inflicting self-injury, talks with animals.

The Deputy Court Administrator lifts tall buildings and walks under them, kicks locomotives off the tracks, catches speeding bullets in her teeth and eats them, freezes water with a single glance.  She is God.

Now, as I prepare to leave my desk in the Sibley County Courthouse for the last time next week, I wonder what artifacts I should leave in the desk for the judge who will occupy it after me….

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Next Week:   The Parting Glass