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Judicial Ride-Along Gives New Perspective on the Bench
Chris Morris
Monday, December 28, 2009

Section: Features/Substantive Law

Chris Morris, Contributing Author. Mr. Morris is an attorney with Bassford Remele. His practice focuses on commercial litigation and defending claims brought under consumer protection statutes.

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A well-kept secret benefit for members of the HCBA is the opportunity to spend a day with a Hennepin County District Court judge in a judicial ride-along.  At the invitation of our Bench and Bar Committee co-chair, Judge Jay Quam, I was able to spend one-and-a-half days in November on an extended ride-along with several judges, getting an inside look at life behind the bench.  All the judges who invited me into their courtrooms for the visit, as well as their staff, were generous with their time, and went out of their way to give me insight into how they deal with the heavy caseload in the face of a shrinking budget and staff. 


Although my visit began with Judge Denise Reilly presiding over civil cases of the kind I am accustomed to litigating (including a hearing on cross-motions for summary judgment in which the parties had submitted a large stack of papers that she valiantly studied over breakfast in chambers before the hearing), I spent most of my time in what struck me as an alternate universe of the criminal felony block with Judges Toddrick Barnette and David Duffy, and Family Court with Judge Quam. The experience gave me new-found appreciation for the quick decision-making skills our judges must use in connection with critical public safety issues, as well as for the remarkable lawyers who serve as Hennepin County prosecutors and public defenders. 


My inside look at the criminal caseload that judges face brought home the fact that they must place a priority on the cases that present serious constitutional and public safety implications, and that if the courtís budget continues to shrink, it will first be at the expense of the civil calendar. The reality of the felony block, which hit me as I spent a morning with Judge Barnette in omnibus hearings, is that the lawyers on both sides are already stretched beyond all practical bounds. The criminal caseload numbers were staggering, and are ever increasing. At the same time, given the hiring freeze that currently exists in both the Hennepin County Prosecutor and Public Defender offices, there are fewer and fewer lawyers to handle these matters critical to public safety and access to justice. 


Cases are flying through the system toward a speedy trial, and the lawyers are booked at multiple hearings each day. As a result, there is no surprise or even annoyance when a lawyer on either side fails to show up on time for a hearing.  The judge and opposing counsel realize that the absent attorney is no doubt involved in another matter in another courtroom, or attempting to visit with an incarcerated client. When all parties are finally present, little if any time is wasted pursuing questionable legal theories or submitting voluminous paperwork. Rather, what I witnessed were prosecutors and public defenders working together, in a civil and practical manner, to help the court reach a fair resolution in the matter then before them, all while taking as little time as possible, so the court could move on to the next emergency and so the lawyers could move on to their own next case that day. It was a stark contrast to the world of commercial litigation, where at times it seems as if neither side to a dispute will let any stone go unturned, any conceivable claim or defense go unasserted, and any motion not fully briefed and filed, no matter what the burden on the court and no matter how long the delay until trial. An afternoon in felony arraignment was a blur. Judge Duffy graciously invited me to march into the courtroom in the Public Safety Building (aka the new Hennepin County jail) and sit at his side behind the bench. A packed courtroom of attorneys and family members awaited us, along with a glassed-off area to our right, which held the criminal defendants, guarded by several deputies. As each new matter was called, the defendant would step up to a small opening in the glass enclosure in order to provide his name and address, and answer whatever questions the court posed.


There might be a moment (perhaps 30 seconds) for the public defender to confer with her client behind the glass about the proceeding, and argument on bail would begin.  The prosecutor routinely asked for a bond in the tens of thousands of dollars. The public defender frequently asked for a release based only on non-monetary conditions (i.e., show up to all court dates, stay sober, stay away from the property allegedly burglarized or the victim allegedly assaulted), while pointing out that the defendant was perhaps the sole breadwinner for a large family, or took care of a disabled spouse, or was attending a high school program in which another missed day would mean his expulsion from the program.  Judge Duffy had at best a couple minutes to read through the file, listen to argument, ask questions of the defendant, and make a decision on amount of any bail and conditions of releaseódecisions that could have dire consequences, either to public safety or to the family of the defendant.  The cases proceeded nonstop, from 1:30 until 4:00, all handled by a single prosecuting attorney who stood (in high heels) for two-and-a-half hours, and a public defender who nearly pulled off the same feat (although a few other defense counsel did make appearances in a few of the matters).


In Family Court, initial case management hearings were less frenetic, but still presented a full afternoon of work and important custody issues involving children placed in trying circumstances due to divorce, chemical abuse, and emotional struggles of their parents.  Making matters more difficult, unlike the felony block, many of these litigants appear pro se, requiring the court to spend some extra time providing an overview of the process (Pro bono attorneys are sorely needed for these matters.) In a heroic pro se effort, one woman had filed an emergency motion to be awarded custody of her newborn grandchild. She feared that her mentally ill, chemically abusive, adult daughter would harm the child. In that instance, Judge Quamís decision was not difficult.  In other circumstances, however, the court can be presented with wildly inconsistent stories and allegations from parents, creating significant doubt as to whether there exists any good solution for the child.  When those parties are unrepresented, the court has a nearly impossible task of efficiently sorting through the facts and arriving at a decision well supported by the record.


In our busy law practice, it is always hard to carve out time for nonbillable activities such as marketing and CLE attendance.  However, as my visit illustrates, making time for a judicial ride-along provides a fascinating look at aspects of the court system to which many of us have never been exposed. It also provides a perspective that will allow better appreciation for the work of our judges and court staff, and that might just allow you to do a better job persuading the court and advocating for your client. If you are interested in taking advantage of this unique opportunity, please contact Executive Director Larry Buxbaum at larry@hcba.org.  


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