New to the Bench: Hon. Nancy E. Brasel
Sunday, January 1, 2012
by: Joy R. Anderson
Hon. Nancy E. Brasel
Ms. Anderson is an associate at Gray Plant Mooty in the Business & General Litigation Group. Her litigation practice covers a wide variety of subject matters, including trademarks, financial services, and trusts and estates.
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1996 J.D., University of Minnesota
1993 M.A., University of Texas at Austin
1991 B.A., Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas
2008-2011 Assistant U.S. Attorney, Fraud and Public Corruption Section, OCDETF and Violent Crimes Section, District of Minnesota
2002-2008 Partner, Greene Espel
1999-2002 Associate, Greene Espel
1997-1999 Associate, Leonard, Street and Deinard
Judge Nancy Brasel hasn’t quite settled into her new office yet, but she already feels fortunate to be there.
“Being a judge has been something I thought about, but I didn’t really think I would be lucky enough to get to do it,” she said.
After spending 11 years as a civil litigator and three in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Brasel was appointed to the Hennepin County bench by Gov. Mark Dayton in September 2011. She began her new job Oct. 17, starting on the community court calendar.
The greatest change for Brasel so far has been adjusting to the sheer volume of cases. The Fourth Judicial District is the state’s largest trial court, with 62 judges and 12 referees taking on nearly 800,000 cases per year. Brasel said she has been impressed with how the judges and administrative staff deal with that never-ending flow. “It’s the best kept secret in Hennepin County, how much justice gets done here and how quickly it gets done,” she said. Brasel sees that volume not as a drawback of her new job, but as an opportunity. “You can affect more people in a positive way every day doing this than doing most other jobs that are available to lawyers,” she said.
The same interest in public service that brought Brasel to the bench also led to her previous job as a prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota, where she worked from 2008 to 2011. At first, Brasel worked in the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force and Violent Crime Section (OCDETF), which focuses on drug, firearms, and gang prosecutions. Although switching to narcotics and gun cases after years in civil litigation created some culture shock for Brasel, she enjoyed being an assistant U.S. attorney, particularly the opportunity it provided to collaborate with law enforcement officers during their investigations. “It was terrific work—it felt like I was really making a difference,” she said.
After nearly two years, Brasel moved to the Fraud and Public Corruption Section, where she handled cases relating to economic crimes, including wire fraud, mail fraud, conspiracy, and tax evasion. She was involved with several wiretap cases, where her job included both reviewing the results of the surveillance and ensuring that the rights of the wiretap targets were preserved. “I did have friends and family watch The Wire so they understood what I did,” she said with a smile. But there were certainly differences between the HBO crime drama and Brasel’s work. “We definitely don’t look nearly as glamorous nor are we as dramatic as they are on television,” she said.
The first big fraud case that Brasel worked on was the prosecution of Denny Hecker, the former Twin Cities auto mogul who was accused of defrauding creditors of millions of dollars. In September 2010, Hecker pleaded guilty to one count of bankruptcy fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, for which he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to pay $31 million in restitution. Brasel was involved in the investigation and prosecution of that case for a year and a half—because of the magnitude of the fraud, prosecutors were continually discovering new offshoots of the case, she said. Brasel also worked on tax fraud and mortgage fraud cases, the latter of which have become a major focus of the U.S. Attorney’s Office since the economic downturn in 2008. “The economy doesn’t cause fraud, but it reveals fraud, and that has caused a spike in prosecutions,” she said.
Brasel’s time working at the U.S. Attorney’s Office taught her to have a lot of respect for the job that federal prosecutors do. The amount of prison time that defendants can receive in federal courts is often far greater than the amount they would receive for similar charges in state court, she said. “The hammer that the federal prosecutors have is enormous—it needs to be treated very respectfully because of the great effect it can have on someone’s life,” she said.
Before moving to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Brasel was a partner at Greene Espel, a Minneapolis litigation boutique firm that currently has 18 attorneys. Brasel joined the firm as an associate in 1999, after two years at Leonard, Street and Deinard, also in Minneapolis. She became a partner at Greene Espel in 2002. “That was really where I grew up as a lawyer,” Brasel said. While at the firm, Brasel worked on general business, securities, and fraud litigation, mostly on the defense side. Her major area of focus was employment litigation, which she combined with some employment counseling.
While working in civil litigation, Brasel most enjoyed what she described as “big, messy, document-intensive cases where you’re in the weeds but you’re trying to keep your eye on the forest.” One particular highlight for Brasel during her time at Greene Espel was defending several class action sexual harassment cases, because of the complexity of the cases and because she enjoyed the process of sorting through the masses of documents to find the story to be told to the jury. “They’re very emotional cases, but all cases are about emotions,” she said. “It’s always personal, always about the personalities of the litigants, even when corporations are involved.”
Brasel grew up in Cedar Falls, Iowa, before heading south to Texas for college. She attended Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and then earned a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Texas at Austin. She intended to get a doctorate degree and become and English professor, but after two years of graduate school, she decided to go to law school instead. “After I got into it, I just found I wanted more practical application to life,” she said.
Brasel returned to the Midwest for law school, attending the University of Minnesota. At the time, her sister was also a University of Minnesota student, although she was studying to be a trauma surgeon, not a lawyer. “My sister and I lived together when she was a first-year resident and I was a first-year law student—our apartment was not particularly clean,” Brasel said with a laugh.
After graduating with her juris doctor degree in 1996, Brasel served as a law clerk for Judge Donald P. Lay, former chief judge of the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Her one-year term was a great learning experience, almost comparable to a year of graduate school, Brasel said. “At that point, the case is tied up in a neat ribbon for you, and it’s all about the reading and the writing,” she said. “It’s very, very different from starting at a firm.” Although she had a wonderful experience at the Eighth Circuit, she currently isn’t thinking about the possibility of moving to an appellate position. “I love working with the lawyers; I love the contact with the litigants; I love trials,” she said.
Brasel currently lives in Hopkins with her family. Brasel is active in volunteering at her children’s school activities.
Although Brasel enjoyed practicing law, she believes the work of being a judge will suit her personality better. “I loved being an advocate, but I always was an advocate who could see both sides, see a reasonable solution, and let go of the zealous advocacy you do when you’re a litigant,” she said. “Also, I’m pretty passionate about how folks should be treated in a justice system, and you will do your best work if you’re working where your passion lies.”