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The Role of Referees in District Court
Melissa J. Chawla
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
by: Melissa J. Chawla

Section: Spotlight/Profiles

Melissa J. Chawla, Contributing Author. Ms. Chawla is an associate attorney in the Minneapolis law firm of Walling, Berg & Debele, PA, practicing in all areas of family law, including marriage dissolution, adoption, custody and third-party custody, parenting access, paternity, and related appeals. After graduating from William Mitchell College of Law in 2002, she served as a law clerk in Hennepin County to Judge Mel I. Dickstein.

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Hearing and resolving thousands of cases a year, referees play a key role in the administration of justice in Hennepin County District Court.  Lawyers who regularly work in the specialty courts are very familiar with the referees and how they function, but, for many lawyers and the public at large, the role of referees is new territory.  This article explains how referees function in our court system.  In addition, it highlights an important change in the law regarding the review of referee decisions in Family Court.  One sidebar accompanying this article profiles the three referees most recently appointed to the Hennepin County District Court, while another reacquaints us with the 13 other referees who have already been serving in the court.

The Referee Position

Currently, 16 district court referees serve in the Fourth Judicial District, including six in Family Court, three in Juvenile Court, two in Housing Court, four in Probate/Mental Health Court, and one Court Trials referee.

The referee position is a creature of statute, with the general authority arising from Minn. Stat.
§ 484.70 (2004).  The statute authorizes the chief judge of the judicial district to appoint one or more suitable persons to act as referees.  Referees hold office at the pleasure of the judges of the district court and must be “learned in the law.”  The statute enumerates the duties and powers of a referee.  A referee is to hear and report all matters assigned by the chief judge, and recommend findings of fact, conclusions of law, temporary and interim orders, and final orders for judgment.  Thus, a referee has broad authority to make both procedural and substantive decisions in a case to which the referee is assigned.  However, a referee may not hear a contested trial, hearing, motion, or petition if a party or attorney for a party objects in writing to the assignment of a referee to hear the matter.  A party who objects to a referee hearing a contested matter must serve and file the objection within 10 days of notice of the assignment of the referee, but not later than the commencement of any hearing before a referee.1

Referee Decisions

All recommended orders and findings of a referee are subject to confirmation by a judge.  Upon the conclusion of a hearing, the statute requires that the referee transmit the court file to a judge together with written recommended findings and orders.  Once confirmed, the referee’s recommended findings and orders become the findings and orders of the court.  In general, a party may seek judicial review of any recommended order or finding of a referee by serving and filing notice within 10 days of effective notice of the recommended order or finding.  The notice of review must specify the grounds for review and the specific provisions of the recommended findings or orders in dispute.  The court, upon receipt of a notice of review, sets a time and place for a review hearing.

These general provisions regarding review of referee decisions are supplemented or modified by more specific statutes and rules that apply in the various specialty courts.  For example, in Housing Court, the relevant statute mirrors the general language of Minn. Stat. § 484.70, but the applicable rule provides additional details.2  A party not in default may seek judicial review of a decision or sentence recommended by the referee by serving and filing a notice of review on the form prescribed by the court administrator.  The notice must be filed within 10 days after an oral announcement in court by the referee of the recommended order or within 13 days after service by mail of the adopted written order, whichever occurs first.  The review is limited to the record established before the referee, but a hearing is scheduled before the reviewing judge upon the request of any party.

Specific statutes and rules also apply in Juvenile Court.  By statute, notice of the findings of the referee together with a statement regarding the right of rehearing must be given to the minor, parents, guardian, or custodian of the minor whose case has been heard by the referee, and to any other person that the court may direct.3  The minor and the minor’s parents, guardian, or custodian are entitled to a hearing by the judge of the Juvenile Court if a request for a hearing is filed by one of these persons within three days after receiving notice of the findings of the referee.4  However, in juvenile delinquency matters, a motion for review will be considered timely if filed within 10 days after the referee’s findings and recommendations have been provided to parties specified by rule.5  The review by a judge may be based solely on the record made before the referee, or de novo in whole or in part.6  In juvenile protection matters, any motion for review of a referee’s findings and recommended order, and memorandum of law, must be filed with the court and served on all parties and the county attorney within five days of the filing of the referee’s findings and recommended orders.  Any responsive motion and memorandum must be filed and served within three days from the date of service of the motion for review.  The review in these cases is limited to the record before the referee and no additional evidence may be filed or considered.  A personal appearance will not be permitted absent a showing of good cause.7

New Procedure in Family Court

In the spring of 2006, a new law was enacted that changed the manner by which referee decisions are reviewed in Family Court in the Fourth Judicial District.  Under the old law, a party could seek review of any recommended order or finding by a Family Court referee by serving and filing a notice within 10 days of effective notice of such recommended order or finding.8  The corresponding rule allowed the moving party to file and serve a memorandum within 10 days from the date the court mailed the notice of the judge to whom the review had been assigned, and allowed the responding party to submit any response within 20 days from the same date.9  No additional evidence was accepted, and no personal appearance was allowed except upon order of the court for good cause shown.  The new law completely eliminates this review process, providing instead that Fourth Judicial District Family Court referee orders and decrees may be appealed directly to the court of appeals in the same manner as judicial orders and decrees.10  The new law does not change the requirement that all recommended orders and findings of a referee must be confirmed by a district court judge.  The time for appealing a referee order runs from service by any party of written notice of the filing of the confirmed order.

According to Assistant Chief Judge James Swenson, who was the presiding judge of Family Court when the change in the law occurred, the legislation was driven by members of the family law bar in Hennepin County.  The primary concern on the part of the bar was that the review process significantly extended the length and expense of proceedings in some cases because parties were litigating matters at multiple levels: first, within the review process, and, subsequently, on appeal.  Under the old system, it was theoretically possible for a referee to amend a finding or order in response to a motion for review, and then have the review process start anew with the other party seeking review.  This scenario is particularly problematic in Family Court where the decisions often involve or affect children.  Bar members maintained, and Judge Swenson and the bench largely agreed, that it was best for children to streamline the appeal process, thereby minimizing conflict and conserving financial resources for other child-related purposes.  Further, by allowing immediate appeal of Family Court referee decisions, the new law makes the procedure in Hennepin County consistent with that of Ramsey County.

New Faces in Family Court

Perhaps a more visible change in Family Court in 2006 was the addition of three new referees, who are profiled below.  Referees Kevin McGrath, Tsippi Wray, and Sangeeta Jain bring a wealth of family law experience to the court. 


Referees have broad authority to hear and determine cases in Hennepin County District Court.  Judicial review of a referee decision may be had in many, but not all, types of cases, and various requirements apply where review is possible.  For lawyers who regularly appear before Hennepin County referees, it is important to understand the applicable statutes and rules regarding the role that these judicial officers play in our system. 

1                      Minn. Gen. R. Prac. 107.  However, different timing rules apply in Housing Court and Juvenile Court.  In Housing Court, Minn. Gen. R. Prac. 602 specifies that a party may request that a judge hear a case by filing such request in writing with the court administrator at least one day prior to the scheduled hearing date.  In Juvenile Court, an eligible party must file a written objection with the court within three days after being informed that the matter is to be heard by a referee.  Minn. R. Juv. Del. P. 23.02; Minn. R. Juv. Pro. P. 7.02.

2           Minn. Stat. § 484.013, subd. 3; Minn. Gen. R. Prac. 611(a).

3                      Minn. Stat. § 260.031, subd. 3.

4           Minn. Stat. § 260.031, subd. 4.

5            Minn. R. Juv. Del. P. 23.05, subd. 2.  Subdivision 3 of this rule also defines the scope of review allowed for the child, the prosecuting attorney, and the parent(s), legal guardian, or legal custodian.

6           Minn. R. Juv. Del. P. 23.05, subd. 5. 

7           Minn. R. Juv. Pro. P. 7.05.

8           Minn. Stat. § 484.65, subd. 9 (2004).

9                      Minn. Gen. R. Prac. 312.01 (2004).

10          2006 Minn. Sess. Law Serv. Ch. 280 (S.F. 3199).



Recently Appointed Family Law Referees


Kevin McGrath

Referee Kevin McGrath, who joined Family Court in April 2006, brings a variety of experiences to the position.  McGrath worked in the newspaper business for approximately 10 years in Winona, Minnesota, and Lacrosse, Wisconsin, before entering law school.  As a law student, McGrath completed an internship with Judge James Swenson in Family Court.  Upon earning his law degree from the University of Minnesota, Referee McGrath served as a law clerk at the Minnesota Supreme Court.

In 1999, Referee McGrath entered private practice, having founded a law firm focused almost entirely on family law.  In his final few years as a family law attorney, Referee McGrath did a great deal of alternative dispute resolution work.

The skills he developed in that work have helped him in his early months as a referee because resolution is the one thing he feels he is really able to give those who appear before him.  When parties and lawyers come into his courtroom willing to problem-solve, McGrath finds it gratifying to roll up his sleeves and help people find creative ways to do so.  But whether a case settles, goes to trial, or anything in between, McGrath views it as his responsibility to give the case his full attention, and treat all people fairly and respectfully at every stage of the proceeding.

In addition to his new role as judicial officer, McGrath recently became a father when he and his wife adopted an 8-year-old girl from Russia.  He has been pursuing an interest in horses with his daughter, and also counts photography and gardening among his hobbies.


Tsippi Wray

Referee Tsippi Wray also joined Family Court in April of in 2006, but was not a stranger to the court system, having served as a child support magistrate since 1999.  Wray came to the United States from Israel in the late 1970s, and subsequently spent some time in military service.  She earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota in 1982, and her law degree from William Mitchell College of Law in 1985.

Wray worked for the Legal Aid Society and as a family law attorney in private practice before entering public service as a child support magistrate.  In her work as a magistrate, Wray gained a great deal of experience in dealing with pro se parties, albeit in the context of what she describes as a very narrow jurisdictional scope.

Wray appreciates the breadth of issues she sees as a referee, and enjoys being a broker of ideas as opposed to a mere decision maker.  In any given case, Wray feels it is her duty to think through the possible alternatives, and identify why her decision is the best outcome in light of the applicable law and facts.  Wray makes it a priority to craft orders that are internally consistent and that do not lose sight of common sense. 

In her free time, Wray enjoys making pottery.  She resides in St. Paul with her husband, who is also an attorney, and two teenaged sons.


Sangeeta Jain

Sangeeta Jain, a child support magistrate in the Hennepin County District Court since 1999, has been serving as a referee in Family Court on a temporary basis.  She received her J.D. from the Hamline University School of Law, where she has taught family law for the past five years, and she earned her LL.M. from the University of San Diego School of Law.  Jain has worked in the area of family law and criminal litigation as a prosecutor in San Diego, California, as well as in Ramsey County, and in the public service arena as a staff attorney with Legal Aid and the Minnesota Justice Foundation.

To say that Jain is committed to living a life of community service is an understatement.  She serves as an appointed member on the Minnesota Supreme Court Task Force Committees on Gender Fairness and on Racial Fairness in the Courts, and several other boards and committees.  She particularly enjoys her work with organizations that serve immigrant and at-risk women and address human rights issues.  In 2005, the Indus Women Leaders (IWL) awarded Jain with the IWL Spirit of Women Award, in recognition of her efforts to promote the advancement of South Asian Women. 

Jain’s commitment to public service seems to impact all she does, and her duties as a referee are no exception.  As a judicial officer, she feels it is her responsibility to help people feel comfortable with the judicial system and understand that it is based upon principles of fairness and equal access.  She is conscious of the fact that our system imposes requirements that may not seem reasonable to some litigants, so she makes it a priority to ensure that those who appear in her courtroom are heard and treated with respect. 

Jain is married, has three daughters, and is in the process of adopting a fourth daughter from India.  She enjoys reading, biking, and playing water sports.


Additional Hennepin County Referees

Susan S. Carlson

Susan S. Carlson was appointed as referee in 1995, and has served in various specialty courts since then, including the Family, Housing, and Juvenile courts.  She has been serving in Juvenile Court since 1999.  Referee Carlson worked in private practice for four years, in general legal practice.  Married to former governor Arne H. Carlson, Susan Carlson was Minnesota’s First Lady from 1991 to 1999, and during that time was actively engaged in efforts to improve the quality of life for Minnesota’s children.  Carlson has also been a leader on issues relating to fetal alcohol syndrome.  Carlson received her B.A. from the University of Minnesota and her J.D. from the Hamline University School of Law. 


Susan M. Cochrane

Susan M. Cochrane was appointed as referee in 1995.  Referee Cochrane served in Family Court until 2004, and since that time has served in the court’s traffic court initiative, which incorporates a restorative justice program into the payable traffic calendar, helping people restore their driver’s license privileges.  Cochrane has a strong interest in innovative court programs, and is especially excited about a new program in which the Traffic Court reaches out to urban communities and holds court in community centers in North Minneapolis, Northeast Minneapolis, Cedar-Riverside, and the Lake Street/Powderhorn neighborhood.  Before her appointment, Cochrane spent five years in private practice, and eight years working for Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, practicing in family law.  Cochrane earned her B.A. from Hamline University, and received her J.D. from William Mitchell College of Law.


Donna Falk Fredkove

Donna Falk Fredkove has served as a referee since 1987.  She has worked in the Mental Health, Family, and Housing courts, and since 2005 has served in Juvenile Court.  Prior to her appointment, Fredkove worked three years as a legislative staff member for the Minnesota House of Representatives, and four years as an assistant Hennepin County attorney.  Fred-kove received her B.A. from the University of Minnesota, and earned her J.D. from William Mitchell College of Law.  Fredkove is particularly interested in substance abuse prevention for juveniles.  She has a calendar once a month that is dedicated to juveniles with non-felony-level substance abuse offenses.  The more intensive supervision and attention to chemical dependency issues that accompanies that special calendar is intended to prevent children whose primary problem is substance abuse from becoming delinquent or growing up into adult offenders.


Linda J. Gallant

Linda J. Gallant was appointed as referee for Hennepin County District Court in 1992, and has served in the Juvenile, Family, and Housing courts.  Before her appointment, Referee Gallant worked for the Legal Rights Center and Legal Aid Society for three years, worked in private practice for six, and taught law for six years, first at the William Mitchell College of Law, and then at the City University of New York.  Gallant received her B.A. from Brown
, and her J.D. from William Mitchell College of Law.  An avid bicyclist, Gallant has biked throughout the world, including Greece, France, Italy, and a December 2006 trip to Vietnam.  Gallant has also participated in the Minneapolis-Chicago AIDS Ride fundraising event.

Thomas F. Haeg

One of the two longest-serving referees at the Hennepin County Court, Thomas F. Haeg was appointed in 1978.  Referee Haeg has served in all the specialty courts except Probate, with extensive experience in Juvenile Court.  Haeg is currently serving in Family Court, where he has been since 2003.  Haeg earned his B.A. from St. John’s University in Minnesota, and his J.D. from St. Louis University School of Law.  When the Housing Court was created in 1989, Haeg engaged in extensive community outreach to educate landlords and tenant groups about the purpose of the new court—recognizing that education was critically important to facilitating access to the court.


Wesley Iijima

Wesley Iijima was appointed as referee for Hennepin County District Court in 1990.  He served two years in Housing Court, and since 1993 has been serving in Juvenile Court.  Before coming to the court, Referee Iijima practiced for eight years for Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services and three years for the United Auto Workers—Ford Legal Services.  Iijima also served as deputy commissioner for the Department of Human Rights for two years.  Iijima earned both his B.A. and his J.D. from the University of Minnesota.  Iijima is actively engaged in the Hennepin County District Court’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, focusing especially on the issue of over-representation of minorities in detention status.


Bruce Kruger

Since his appointment in 1990, Bruce Kruger has served as a referee in Probate/Mental Health Court, focusing primarily on probate estates trusts, guardianships, and conservatorships.  Referee Kruger came to Hennepin County District Court with three years’ experience as a judicial officer in the St. Louis County Court, and some 23 years of private practice—first in northeastern Minnesota, then in Minneapolis.  Although he was not a hockey player himself, Kruger developed a love for the sport in college.  He has been very actively involved in youth hockey for many years, both coaching youth teams and serving on regional and national youth hockey associations.  Kruger earned his B.A. from Harvard University and his J.D. from the University of Minnesota Law School.

Mark Labine

Referee Mark Labine has been serving as a Housing Court referee for Hennepin County District Court since his appointment in 2005.  Referee Labine came to the court following 25 years of private practice.  In addition to his general law practice, Labine was very involved in dispute resolution as a neutral, and he worked as a contract administrative law judge, arbitrator, magistrate, referee, and mediator.  Before going to college, Labine served in the U.S. Navy as an air traffic controller at the Naval Air Station in Kingsville, Texas, and on the aircraft carrier the USS Enterprise.  He served in Vietnam, where he earned a Vietnam Service Medal.  Labine received his B.A. from the University of Minnesota, and earned his J.D. from the Hamline University School of Law.


Judy B. Mack

Judy B. Mack was appointed as referee in 1991, and has served in Family Court since that time.  Referee Mack came to Hennepin County District Court following 10 years in private practice as a family lawyer.  While in private practice, Mack served as a guardian ad litem for Family Court.  Mack plans to retire from her referee position in two years, but looks forward to remaining active in family law matters, especially custody and parenting.  Mack earned her B.A. from the University of Minnesota, and her J.D. from the Hamline University School of Law.


Patrick C. Meade

Patrick C. Meade was appointed as referee for Hennepin County District Court in 1987.  Apart from one year’s service in Family Court, Referee Meade has spent all of his years of service in Mental Health Court.  Prior to his appointment, Meade served as a law clerk to Judge Stanley D. Kane in Hennepin County District Court, and as a Fourth Judicial District special term law clerk and staff attorney.  Meade is a regular volunteer for “Everybody Wins”—a mentoring program in reading for third graders.  Meade earned his B.A. from Marquette University, and his J.D. from the University of Minnesota Law School.  Meade also received a Masters degree in English literature from Rice University, and he taught writing and literature at the University of Northern Iowa before going into law. 


David L. Piper

David L. Piper was appointed as a permanent referee in 2001, following earlier service to Hennepin County District Court as a pro se referee and as a temporary referee.  Referee Piper came to his position with 20 years of private practice experience, with a focus in the specialty courts.  Before his appointment, Piper also served as a child support magistrate and as the chief family court public defender.  Piper has served in Family Court since 2001.  A believer in community service, Piper serves on the board of Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) and is a volunteer reader in the Minneapolis Public Schools.  He has been a volunteer ski instructor with Courage Center, and he was on the board at Chrysalis, among other community activities.  Piper received his B.A. from Whittier College, and his J.D. from the Hamline University School of Law.


Anthony A. Schumacher

Anthony A. Schumacher has served as a referee for Hennepin County District Court for over 21 years.  Before his appointment, Referee Schumacher served as a law clerk and special term law clerk in Hennepin County and worked briefly for the Minnesota State Public Defender’s Office.  As a referee, he has worked in every specialty court in Hennepin County, but since 1990 has served chiefly in the Probate/Mental Health Court.  Schumacher describes working with the severely mentally ill and chemically dependent on a daily basis as a humbling experience and expresses great admiration for those persons who provide care and treatment to individuals struggling to deal with their mental disorders and/or chemical dependence.  Schumacher earned his B.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his J.D. from the University of Minnesota.


Richard Wolfson

Richard Wolfson is in his 28th year of service as a referee for Hennepin County District Court.  Referee Wolfson has been serving in Probate/Mental Health Court since his appointment, primarily working in probate.  Wolfson has written on various legal topics, including probate, guardianships, right-to-die, and commitments, and has been published both locally and nationally.  Wolfson earned his B.A. from the College of William and Mary in Virginia, his M.A. in political science from Vanderbilt University, his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Minnesota, and his J.D. from Washington University in St. Louis.


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