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Judge Jeanne J. Graham Moves to the Federal Bench
Candy B. Olson
Thursday, December 22, 2005
by: Candy B. Olson

Section: Spotlight/Profiles

Judge Jeanne J. Graham.

Judge Graham instructs new lawyers on practicing in federal court.

Candy B. Olson, Contributing Author. Ms. Olson is an associate at Hanson, Lulic & Krall, LLC. She practices in insurance defense in arson and fraud cases.

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On Sept. 27, 2005, Chief U.S. District Court Judge James M. Rosenbaum announced the appointment of Jeanne J. Graham to the position of U.S. Magistrate Judge for the District of Minnesota.   Magistrate Judge Graham was appointed to fill the position formerly held by Magistrate Judge Jonathan G. Lebedoff, who retired on Sept. 20, 2005.  For Graham, this appointment brings feelings of “coming home” and coming full circle.

At the age of 13, Graham and her family moved from Ohio to Minnesota, settling in Wayzata.  After graduating from Wayzata High School, she attended Gustavus Adophus College in St. Peter, Minn.  There, she graduated in 1980 with the unique combination of a major in chemistry and a minor in religion.   The influence of a relative who played a role in the formation of the Mayo Clinic contributed to Graham’s choice of chemistry as an early career pursuit.

However, after conducting research in the area of inner ear infections, Graham realized that her strengths were in speaking and writing.  She also recalled a particular experience in grade school where she played the role of an attorney in a murder trial.  The experience was rewarding and Graham realized that she was drawn to these types of experiences.

In the fall of 1982, Graham enrolled at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.  There, she took part in the college’s trial skills courses and trial competitions, which demonstrated her love for jury trials, a passion that has followed her throughout her career.  As a law student, Graham met an adjunct professor, Janice Symchych, who would become her boss, mentor, and advocate and who would support her career advancement.

At the time of their initial meeting, Ms. Symchych was an assistant U.S. attorney.  She was later appointed to the position of U.S. magistrate for the federal court in the District of Minnesota in 1985.  Another professor at William Mitchell, John Sonsteng, recommended Graham to fill the position of Symchych’s first law clerk.  During her one-year tenure as Symchych’s law clerk, Graham worked on a broad range of federal issues, which certainly provided the necessary background for her current position.  Additionally, Symchych taught her the cornerstones of the bench: to be clear and concise, identify the core issues, and simplify the most complicated issues. 

Realizing that she had an interest in the public sector and craving a varied practice, Graham then joined the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office.  “The main thing I wanted to do was be in the courtroom,” Graham recalls.  The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office provided her with this opportunity.  She worked on criminal and civil matters while employed there.

In June of 1989, Graham was appointed an assistant U.S. attorney.  Again, Symchych had played an important role in her development, providing encouragement and support when Graham applied for the vacancy.  During almost 12 years as an assistant U.S. attorney, Graham worked on cases ranging from drug busts and bank robberies to complicated economic crime cases.  She also spent a considerable amount of time on cases involving child abuse and child sexual abuse that had occurred on the Red Lake Indian Reservation.  Her passion and experience in these cases led her to assume the responsibilities of section chief for violent and general crimes of the Criminal Division (now the Major Crimes Section).  She later assumed the responsibilities of deputy chief of the Criminal Division.

Her time as an assistant U.S. attorney also led to a growing interest in issues relating to violence against women.  She prosecuted the country’s first interstate stalking case and then a drug-induced rape case.  She has been asked to speak to several community groups on the issues of domestic violence, drug-induced rapes, computer crimes and child exploitation.   

Her interest in juvenile matters followed her when she was appointed to the Fourth Judicial District trial court bench in Hennepin County in December of 2000.  Hennepin County judges are required to select a specialty court in which they will serve for two years.  Graham chose juvenile court.  She found the work difficult because of the intensive rules and regulations and the weight of the decisions that she was called on to make.  However, she found the position rewarding because it was “truly a way to make a difference.”  Specifically, Graham believed that it was her chance “to make a difference in how a child was going to deal” with the process and, she hoped, learn from the experience.  On the child protection side of her duties she found that she was the “only decision maker outside of the trauma, angst, and chaos.” She was particularly struck by the dedication and commitment of the people who work in the juvenile arena referring to them as “angels on earth.” 

She was also struck by the cooperation among the attorneys in the juvenile system and the civility with which they treated each other.  She is always surprised when people behave badly, stating that “top attorneys do not have to behave badly.”  She often gets “distracted” when attorneys engage in personal attacks against each other, rather than addressing the merits of the case and advocating for their clients.

Reflecting on her career path, Graham noticed the “symmetry of it all.”  She began her foray into the federal district court a little over 20 years ago as a law clerk.  While it was difficult for her to leave Hennepin County, she commented that “it seemed right” for her to make the change.  Acknowledging that it was a difficult transition from being an advocate as an assistant U.S. attorney to being a judge in Hennepin County, Graham is keenly aware that she brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to her new position.  She commented that the transition to magistrate judge would certainly have been more difficult if she had gone from the Attorney General’s Office to her current position.

Graham has found her new position “exciting” and has enjoyed “coming back home” to a system in which she has had much experience.  She is looking forward to being challenged in a way that she has not been challenged before and taking on complex civil issues.  She realizes that it is very stressful for people to be involved in lawsuits and sees her role as getting to the “meat” of the issues to try to get cases resolved in an efficient manner. 

She feels very privileged to become part of a federal team that is well thought of throughout the county, adding that all of the members of the District of Minnesota bench come to the bench with varied experience, which she believes is very important. 

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