Judge Daniel C. Moreno’s parents, Celia and Delphino, held the Bible as he was sworn in as a Hennepin County District Court judge in May of this year. Judge Moreno considers his appointment to the bench as much his parents’ accomplishment as his own. His parents taught Moreno the importance of education, hard work, and civic responsibility.
Judge Moreno’s parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the late 1950s. As children, his parents had little opportunity for education; neither had the chance to attend school past the 10th grade. They were determined, though, to make their children’s lives different. To make this happen, they immigrated to the United States, initially living in Texas. Then, they moved to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where there was a better educational system. Lake Geneva is where Moreno and his four siblings grew up.
The importance of hard work was stressed in the Moreno household. His father always said, “You don’t sit around if you could be working.” His father worked as a cement layer and carpenter for the same company for 45 years, retiring about five years ago. His mother worked in a factory. Holidays for the Morenos did not mean a time to rest, but rather a time to earn extra money for the family. (Moreno said his family was concerned when his father was forced to retire because free time had never been part of his life. They had no need for concern, though. His father is now a voracious reader.)
Judge Moreno took his parents’ lesson to heart, beginning work as a child mowing lawns and shoveling driveways. Moreno’s job during breaks from the University of Wisconsin illustrates his work ethic. He worked at a meat packing plant, starting out at five in the morning lugging meat and working until seven at night washing smocks. He enjoyed the hard work and made many friends at the plant. But the work also enhanced his appreciation of college and the opportunities it presented. Many of his friends at the plant were only there because they lacked the education necessary to give them options. Judge Moreno was determined to have options.
Judge Moreno’s parents also stressed the importance of education—believing that “education was the vehicle to go places.” His father did not just say this, but also took action to make sure Moreno did not stray from the education path. Before working at the meat packing plant, Moreno worked at a construction site with his father. After two weeks of working at a variety of construction jobs that he enjoyed, Judge Moreno found himself doing nothing but working with an air hammer eight to 10 hours per day. Moreno believes his father made this happen so that he would not get any ideas of forgoing college for construction work.
The emphasis on education paid off. Moreno and his four siblings all had the opportunity to attend college. Two completed graduate programs—Moreno with his law degree from the University of Minnesota, and one of his siblings with a master’s degree in anthropology. His mother had not even imagined that her children would achieve so much; of his appointment to the bench, Judge Moreno’s mother said, “We dreamed that you boys would graduate high school. This is even beyond my expectations.”
Judge Moreno also credits his parents with teaching him the importance of civic responsibility. His dedication to civic responsibility has been shown both by his career path and his volunteer activities.
Until taking the bench, Moreno devoted his legal career to representing clients who could not afford an attorney. While a law student at the University of Minnesota, Moreno worked as a law clerk in the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office. He joined that office after graduation. Moreno brings to the bench extensive court experience, having tried more than 30 jury trials and represented thousands of clients in all phases of felony and misdemeanor criminal proceedings.
Judge Moreno’s public service has primarily focused on helping the Latino community. He was a founding member of the Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association, serving as a board member from 1990 until 2002. For eight years, Moreno worked with Centro Cultural Chicano, a public service organization aimed at empowering the Chicano/Latino community by providing services that eliminate barriers to self-sufficiency. He has also advised both the City of Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota on issues relating to the Latino community, as part of the Mayor’s Latino Advisory Committee and the University President’s Latino Advisory Committee.
Judge Moreno said that he is the only male Latino judge in Hennepin County and that his judgeship sends a very positive message to the Latin community. He considers himself a role model and said that he will set the best example that he can. He does not, though, see himself as a Latino or a Mexican-American judge: he is a “judge for everybody” and will serve “without fear or favor of any ethnic group.”
Judge Moreno has seen improvement in the treatment of Latino participants in Hennepin County courtrooms. As an example, he cited the fact that when he first started in the Public Defender’s Office, there was only one Spanish-speaking interpreter. This was a problem because there are significant differences in the way the Spanish language is spoken by individuals from different countries. Translation, therefore, would not be precise by the interpreter. Also, Moreno pointed out that it was not uncommon in the early days for an attorney to ask a lengthy question or a witness to provide a long answer and the interpreter would then provide a very short translation. Fortunately, the number of and the expertise of interpreters have greatly increased over the years, helping Spanish-speaking and other non-English speakers access the courts. “Hennepin County District Court is to be commended on improving services to non-English-speaking communities,” noted Moreno.
His experience as a public defender put Moreno in the courtroom nearly every working day from 1991 until he was sworn in as judge. He had the opportunity, therefore, to observe countless judges in many different situations. Moreno’s father taught him that you could learn something from everyone—both what to do and what not to do. A major lesson he learned from the judges before whom he appeared was the importance of treating everyone in the courtroom with “respect, courtesy, and dignity.”
Judge Moreno’s experience has also resulted in his being very familiar with many of the attorneys he will see in criminal matters. He said he has a good relationship with public defenders as well as the county attorneys he tried cases against. He is mindful of the need for both the “reality of fairness and the appearances of fairness” and will not hear cases where he has a particularly close friendship with one of the attorneys.
Judge Moreno has already sought the advice of other judges and intends to continue to do so. He has been advised to not let becoming a judge change him as a person—to avoid “black robe disease.” Other judges also have told him of the need to look at things from a new perspective. Moreno emphasizes, “We are conditioned to think as advocates with a built-in perspective. You need to remove yourself from that perspective as a judge.” He does not expect to have a problem moving away from a defense mind-set. As an attorney, he always tried to consider his cases from not only a defense perspective but also from the prosecution’s perspective as well.
As to his advice for lawyers appearing before him, he said they should be prepared and get to the point. Moreno respects and admires good advocacy and enjoys seeing an advocate do his or her job well: “It is like a craftsman at work,” he said.
Judge Moreno also has a busy life beyond the bench and his public service activities. He and his wife, Jean Burdorf, an appellate attorney with the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, have three children, the youngest born just this past May. His recreational activities include canoeing, fishing, and playing broom ball.
While Moreno is excited about serving as a judge, his parents, he said, are even more excited. This is understandable because, as Moreno put it, his appointment to the bench is the “product of the American dream” and the product of his parents’ hard work.
Judge Daniel C. Moreno
1990 J.D., University of Minnesota
1986 B.A., University of Wisconsin, Madison
1991 Assistant Public Defender, Fourth Judicial District
1987 Law Clerk, Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office