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His face resting thoughtfully in the palm of his hand as he works his way through a full docket of misdemeanor court appearances, Judge Todd Barnette looks at home on the bench. He has been a judge for only a couple of months, yet already runs his courtroom with quiet authority.
Leaning forward and looking over his glasses at a defendant he is conditionally releasing, Judge Barnette tells him in no uncertain terms: “You can’t drive. You can’t drink. Stay out of trouble. Take care of your kids.” To a skinny young man who had missed a court appearance, Judge Barnette asks: “Why’d you miss court?” Not getting a satisfactory answer, he calmly repeats, “Why’d you miss court?” Finally getting a response, Judge Barnette warns the man not to miss the next time, because there might be a different judge on the bench. Then, like he is springing a pop quiz, Judge Barnette asks the man to repeat when he is next due in court. The young man promptly recites the correct time and date, drawing a smile from the judge.
Quick impressions of the judge in court are confirmed by a longer interview: Judge Barnette is a thoughtful, understated but confident man with an engaging sense of humor.
Judge Barnette was raised by his mother and grandmother as an only child in the Anacostia neighborhood in
Judge Barnette’s mother worked at the local recreational center, developing and running programs for kids—“anything to keep people in the community engaged.” She sent her son to Catholic school. He laughingly recalls how his neighborhood friends would skip school to come tease him about his uniform. But, Judge Barnette says, even these friends, whom many might have considered to be bad influences, wanted him to do well.
It was important to his mother that her son learn that “there were things beyond Southeast.” She took him to
After high school, Judge Barnette commuted from his home in Southeast to
An acquaintance suggested the University of Minnesota Law School. Judge Barnette applied and then came to
During law school, Judge Barnette served as a judicial extern to Federal District Judge Michael Davis. He did not yet know what he wanted to do with his law degree, and Judge Davis suggested he look at the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office. Judge Barnette not only took that advice, he, along with Judge Davis’s law clerk, took from Judge Davis his unused invitation to an open house at the Public Defender’s Office, mainly to enjoy the free food and drink. At the event Judge Barnette connected with the personnel director and got an interview, and soon thereafter he was working as a law clerk in the office.
After graduation, Judge Barnette joined the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office as a lawyer. Judge Barnette handled a variety of misdemeanor and felony cases, and he spent much of his time on cases in juvenile court. From 2001 to 2004, he was the senior attorney in the drug court unit.
After 14 years with the public defender, he decided to try something new. Committed to remaining in public service, Judge Barnette joined the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office as a senior assistant county attorney in the Juvenile Division. There, Judge Barnette prosecuted all types of delinquency cases, and he had a special focus on certification of juveniles as adults and “extended jurisdiction” cases. Judge Barnette was also responsible for the Criminal Sexual Conduct Team within the Juvenile Division.
When asked what he learned from moving to the other side of criminal law, Judge Barnette responded that it was not hard to switch from defending to prosecuting. In either case, he said, the lawyer is an advocate doing his job. Rather, what impressed him most were the “tireless workers” at the county attorney’s office. As a public defender, he had considered prosecutors to have endless resources and, he joked, a “cushy job.” But he soon learned to appreciate the enormous amount of case preparation prosecutors must do to be ready for whatever the judge or the defense throws their way. Judge Barnette was also impressed by his colleagues’ deep commitment to public safety and victim rights.
Outside of his law practice, Judge Barnette has been active in professional and bar activities. He is a member of the Minnesota State Bar Association, Hennepin County Bar Association, Minnesota County Attorneys Association, Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers, and Black Prosecutors Association, and he has served on the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and Hennepin County Juvenile Advisory Committee.
Judge Barnette’s volunteer work reflects his interest in community and youth. He worked with the Restorative Justice Peacemaking Project in
Judge Barnette’s life is made even busier by his two small children, Morgan, 3, and Myles, 1. Judge Barnette also has an adult son, Herman Mean. Judge Barnette is married to Gretchen Hoffman, a lawyer whom he first met in his law clerk days at the Public Defender’s Office. Judge Barnette and his family reside in
Judge Barnette’s philosophy echoes the lessons he learned in his youth. His mother was not alive to attend his public swearing-in ceremony on March 17, 2006. But his grandmother was there, and she held the Bible for her grandson, the new
1992 J.D., University of
1988 B.A., Minnesota Law School George Washington University
2004 Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, Criminal Division
1992 Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office