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“One’s experiences, one’s life, informs how one thinks about the given set of issues. For good and for bad,” said Judge Lyonel Norris. “Living in vacant buildings changes the way you think about being homeless… I’ve gotten here by a very circuitous route.”
The ability to make sound decisions and face the challenges of a new path of opportunity was cultivated early in the life of newly appointed Judge Lyonel Norris. Deciding it was in his best interest to leave home, Norris became a runaway and homeless youth at age 16 in Washington, D.C. Upon meeting a person he describes as “being in the business of helping kids,” Norris lived at Runaway House and later in one of three affiliated foster group homes without squandering his choice to decide upon his future.
Having moved to Boston, Bill Treanor, youth advocate and driving force behind Runaway House, showed up one day unannounced and summarily informed Norris, “I think it’s time for you to go to college …you just figure out where you want to go.”
Norris applied to Carleton College in Northfield, having previously attended a conference at Carleton during a summer break and because “it looked like a college.” He moved to Minnesota and upon disembarking from a campus bus soon learned he was one of 150 African American students in a student body of approximately 1,500 students. “Carleton was a very alien place. Minnesota was a very alien place… but there was some nurturing,” said Norris. Norris credits Carleton for his having received a first-rate education.
While at Carleton, Norris met a trusted academic advisor, Fred Easter, took classes from respected professors John Wright and Paul Wellstone, and bonded with his college roommate with whom he still communicates. Norris did not anticipate practicing law at the beginning of his academic career. As an undergraduate student, Norris was told by one of his professors, “If you weren’t interested in everything, you’d be good at something.” Norris decided to major in history. When he began his studies, he focused on post-Civil War labor relations where he encountered the story of Scipio Africanus Jones, who was the son of slaves in Arkansas. Jones was not permitted to appear in court, but he wrote the briefs for a case before the supreme court defending 12 black sharecroppers who had been sentenced to death. Norris became intrigued with legal history and seriously considered a career in academia.
“I wanted to be a professor,” said Norris. “One of the things I discovered, and it came as a real hit in the head, was historians that teach legal history don’t like lawyers that teach legal history because they have very different approaches…I wanted to blend both approaches and bring something new to the game.”
History continues to play a defining role in Norris’s life, which is bookended by two significant historical events. He was born 17 days before Brown v. Board of Education on one end and on the other end, thus far, he has witnessed the inauguration of Barack Obama as the first African American president of the United States.
“My kids are astonished when I explain that a substantial portion of the advances in civil rights have been accomplished in my lifetime,” said Norris.
In addition to learning history, Norris’ life philosophy was significantly impacted at Carleton. Norris was taught that public service is a good in and of itself. “I chose the career path that I did because I think public service is a great way to give the talent and skills you have to a community,” said Norris. “It is also an honorable way to make a living.”
The legal career of Judge Norris is rich and varied and includes private practice, public and private sector employment, and being an adjunct professor at William Mitchell College of Law, the University of Minnesota Law School, and Hamline University. Prior to completing law school, Norris worked as an investigator at the Office of the Minneapolis City Attorney and at a large insurance company.
In law school Norris met persons with whom he would cross paths later in his professional career. For example, on the first day of law school orientation he met B. Todd Jones, the U. S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota, who remains a colleague and close friend. Both would go on to work at the federal courthouse in Minneapolis, Jones as a federal prosecutor and Norris as a federal defender.
Norris attributes his experience in federal court to making him a better lawyer. “Good lawyering makes good lawyering,” said Norris. Facing off against talented lawyers from the U.S. Attorney’s Office helped Norris sharpen his skills.
“I had to work harder and I had to do better research,” said Norris. “There are folks at the federal defender’s office that are as good as or better than any lawyer in the country.”
With federal defense work, something as simple as a placement of a firearm can significantly change the result. In addition, everything is under advisement and requires sound research. Experience paying attention to a high level of detail will serve Norris well as a state district court judge.
Norris recognizes differences between the two systems. “Over there [federal court], the court is making a fact-finding determination about certain factors. Over here [state district court], the issue is rougher, it is crafting an appropriate and immediate response to the matter that bought you into the court.” He also is aware of the vast difference in case volume and resources between the federal and state district courts.
“I was a federal defender for nine years,” said Norris. “We were busy, but not busy like this.”
Norris views the Fourth District Court as a large metropolitan court system that requires patience, wisdom, and an ability to be flexible. He acknowledges that the state district courts are stretched for resources.
“The courts don’t have everything that they need and they never will,” said Norris. “But within that context we are still doing and going to continue to do the job that is required, which is to make sure that everybody has access to the court in a meaningful way and ensuring that equal justice is administered in a way that is fair and equitable across the board.”
Norris sees this as a challenge because the court cannot solve certain problems alone. “There are needs and there are things that need to happen. The courts can only go so far in addressing needs,” said Norris. “We’re a government of limited power and means.”
Norris is enthused to join the bench. Norris’s family is made up of his wife, two daughters, and two cats. He enjoys kayaking, reading, and cooking.