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Friday, July 6, 2007

Judge Crump in unchartered waters

Dakota Academy -- founded a year ago by Hennepin County District Judge Harry Crump and his wife, Faith -- closed its doors last Saturday, according to the education department and the school's sponsor, Crossroads College of Rochester. (Click here for Strib article.)

Apparently, the Burnsville charter school -- which had about 100 students enrolled -- was at a crossroads with its sponsor. The college ended its sponsorship on June 30. (State law requires charter schools to have a sponsor to operate). The college had demanded a financial audit and leadership changes for it to even consider serving as an interim sponsor.

Crump is still on the school's board, although he has stepped down as chairman. The article says the school plans to take all reasonable steps to stay open, including litigation if necessary.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Who bought American Lawyer? Blimey!

This just in -- American Lawyer Media -- the publishers of American Lawyer -- has been bought by U.K.-based Incisive Media PLC for $630 million. (Click here for Incisive's release.)

American Lawyer owned by the Brits? I guess I can see why they waited until after the Fourth of July to announce the acquisition. I wonder if they will change the name to American Barrister Media ...

A tale of two approaches to judicial elections

Minnesota Lawyer will be running a story next week on the Minnesota State Bar Association's recent resolution endorsing a change in the current system for selecting judges in Minnesota.

Many are concerned that the politicized judicial races experienced by a number of other states will soon arrive in Minnesota. To head of this perceived threat to judicial independence, some are proposing that we amend our constitution to modify, or even discard, judicial elections.

The two main competing schools of thought involve either switching to retention elections, or getting rid of judicial elections altogether and establishing an appointment-based system.

So which of the approaches did the MSBA vote to endorse at its annual convention? Errr ..., well both, actually.

While the MSBA's resolution expresses a preference for the appointment-based model, it goes on to state that the bar group is also in favor of a retention-election system.

It reminds me of that Cheers episode where Frasier is reading the gang at the bar Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities in order to educate them. Needless to say the experiment does not go well.

Frasier: "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times."
Norm: Wait, whoa, whoa, whoa. Which was it? ...
Cliff: Boy this Dickens character sure liked to cover all bases, didn't he?"

Now I do not really blame the MSBA for "covering all bases," as it did. Proponents of change find themselves in a quandary. On the one hand, most of them would like Minnesota to adopt the appointment-based approach. But on the other hand, it seems unlikely that a constitutional amendment jettisoning the peoples' right to vote on judges would actually pass. In politics, practicality is often king.

Check out next week's Minnesota Lawyer for more details about the MSBA debate and vote.

A few revolutionary thoughts

I hope everyone had a good Independence Day. When I think of the 4th of July, I recall growing up in Massachusetts, where they know how to do patriotic holidays right. My parents would never take us into Boston for the huge crowds to hear the Boston Pops play, instead we would go to a suburban fireworks display, which would prominently feature some band from the American Legion or the like playing its heart out on some gazebo in the town square. (There were seven kids in my family, which may explain our parents preference to stay local.) We would go out in the sweltering July night air, get eaten alive by mosquitoes, listen to some extremely marginal renditions of Sousa tunes, watch the pyrotechnic display and feel patriotic.

Our parents would also take us to the annual reenactment of the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19. We'd cheer on the minutemen as they took on the red coats as if our involvement might somehow rally the troops to do better in a battle that was fought 200 years earlier. I recall being disappointed when I found out that Revolutionary War hero was not an actual career choice.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Have a safe and happy Fourth of July!!!!

No blood samples, no conviction in Weaver case

Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner told me she had had better days than today.

Gordon Weaver jumped bail and spent four years as a fugitive after he was arrested in connection with his wife's death. When he was finally tried, he claimed his wife had died after falling down and striking her head during an argument. He admitted setting their house on fire to cover the death. Prosecutors maintained that she had died from carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of the fire. Weaver was convicted of second-degree unintentional felony murder. Today, the Court of Appeals reversed that conviction.

Regions Hospital had destroyed the blood samples and test data that showed whether the wife had carbon monoxide in her body when she died. (The identity of the lab technician was unknown by the time the case was tried.) The appellate court said that the defendant's Confrontation Clause rights were violated by allowing the medical examiner to testify about the lab-test results. The defendant never had a chance to cross-examine the lab technician, the court said.

"The most disturbing part of the opinion is that it rewards defendants for absconding," Gaertner said. "The bottom line is that it pays to go on the lam and that is very bad public policy."
What's bad public policy is destroying evidence, responded defense attorney Joseph Friedberg.

"If the Ramsey County medical examiner had sent the blood sample to a forensic laboratory this problem wouldn't have existed. [Such a laboratory would have retained] the blood results until a case is decided. It's kind of strange that [Region's] destroyed the evidence." Friedberg pointed out that the appropriate forensic laboratories are set forth in a statute.

He also said that the case is full of evidentiary errors and he hopes for a judge who understands the rules on retrial. Those errors may be addressed by the Supreme Court when and if it takes the county's petition for review, said Friedberg.

When and if Weaver is retried, he can only be charged with second-degree unintentional felony murder but Friedberg isn't anticipating any plea negotiating on this one.

A million (or $26.7M) reasons Ciresi is a serious candidate

An article posted by the Star Tribune pegs the net worth of Mike Ciresi at about $26.7 million. The Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi attorney has successfully handled a number of massive cases -- including the state's suit against big tobacco -- so his wealth should be no surprise. (Although that's a lot of cigarette money!)

The money could come in handy for his senatorial bid. Ciresi is vying with Al Franken (nothing funny about that) for the DFL nomination and right to square off against incumbent Republican Senator Norm Coleman.

Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, has a great quote in the Strib piece. Comparing Franken and Ciresi, he says: "Money is the big Ciresi advantage. He is not a comedian."

Hmmm. So its Funny vs. Money. If Franken wants to win, he'd better start laughing all the way to the bank.

Pardons: an extraordinary remedy

I know sentiments are divided on whether President Bush was right to commute Scooter Libby’s sentence and this post gives you the chance to post about it if you choose. But I thought I’d take the opportunity to bring you up to date on Minnesota’s pardon/commutation law.

The Minnesota Board of Pardons consists of the governor, the chief justice and the attorney general. Article V, Sec. 7 of the Minnesota Constitution and Minn. Stat. Ch. 638 allow the board to grant a pardon (which exempts the person from punishment), a commutation (which changes the punishment) or a pardon extraordinary, which is relief granted to applicants who have served their sentence.

The board granted 12 extraordinary pardons last year out of 27 requests -- and no pardons or commutations. Of the 12 extraordinary pardons, six were for theft or robbery, one was for fifth degree assault, one for attempted criminal damage to property and four for drug offenses.

Minnesota’s most famous recent pardon came a few months ago to retired Minnesota Vikings lineman Jim Marshall. Marshall, now 70, won an extraordinary pardon for his 1991 conviction on a cocaine possession charge. He sought the pardon so he could travel the world without restrictions to work for a nonprofit he co-founded. (Marshall was one of the Purple People Eaters along with Supreme Court Justice Alan Page, Carl Eller and Gary Larsen. But I digress.)

Marshall had already had his conviction expunged and presented a substantial amount of character evidence to the board, said his attorney, Ronald Meshbesher of Minneapolis. Such character evidence is important for anyone seeking a pardon, Meshbesher said. “I rarely get approached about it but I’m surprised more people don’t do it,” the attorney added.

Pardons based on innocence are rare, said Meshbesher. “I can’t think of a sentence set aside on the ground of innocence. There is something to our system of justice that we ought to take credit for,” he said.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Hennepin nixes Social Security # requirement for marriages

As was first reported in Minnesota Lawyer on June 4, immigration lawyers and their clients have been miffed at Hennepin County for demanding that applicants for a marriage license furnish a Social Security number on their application. (Click here for article from the June 4 edition of Minnesota Lawyer, password required.) Minneapolis attorney David Wilson of the Wilson Law Group represented a woman who wound up leaving the state to get married after she and her intended groom -- a man from Peru who was in the country legally on a K1 visa -- ran into the marriage roadblock locally. (Her fiancé had been unable to produce a Social Security number, so Hennepin County denied the application.) Reporting that his client was "madder than a wet hen" at what had happened, Wilson announced that she was filing suit to end the Hennepin County practice.

Just about a month later, we can report that Wilson, his client and the county have apparently reached consensus, with Hennepin County agreeing to end its offending policy of requiring Social Security numbers.

In an e-mail sent to members of the Minnesota immigration bar late this afternoon, Wilson said: "Hennepin County
and I have negotiated a settlement of my client's suit against the county and the Commissioner of Health. Judge [Edward] Cleary should sign the order executing the stipulation later this week. Rather than waiting for the court's order, Hennepin County started processing marriage applications without mandating social security numbers effective today."

Six Mansfield, Tanick and Cohen lawyers set sail for Hinshaw

An anonymous comment on this blog made a cryptic reference to a “mutiny” taking place at Mansfield, Tanick and Cohen. While a group of six (possibly seven) lawyers is indeed leaving that firm for a new one, nobody has been seen walking the plank, according to firm CEO Earl Cohen.

“When I see the word mutiny, I think of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ – the crew trying to get rid of the captain,” said Cohen. “That’s not what’s happened at all. We haven’t lost any of our mature, long-term talent.”

Thomas Wallrich and Steve Silton, longtime shareholders in the firm, are leaving to join the Minneapolis office of Chicago-based law firm Hinshaw and Culbertson, along with four of the firm’s associates.

One of Wallrich’s primary clients, Brookfield Properties, will be going with him to Hinshaw and Culbertson. Cohen said many of the other clients to leave will be Minnesota community banks.

“We’re pretty much on the same page as far as where clients are going to go,” said Cohen. “We don’t believe in these battles that take place in firms about which files are going to go with a departing attorney.”

Going with the two shareholders will be associates Peter Crema, Heather Marx, Jamie Pierce, and Kristi Adair Zentner, along with a handful of support staff. Cohen said a fifth associate might also be leaving, but that hasn’t been finalized yet.

Cohen said Wallrich and Silton will be missed, but that the firm is in good health.

“They’re both rainmakers, no question about that,” he said. “But we’re in the midst of bringing in some major new clients in the technology industry. The firm from an overall business standpoint has probably never been stronger.”

Ready for a record influx of lawyers?

Minnesota Lawyer has an interesting article this week on the bar exam (see "A record number of takers bracing for the bar exam"). How many people does this record number of takers represent? 906. That is nearly a 40 percent increase from the number of people who took the July exam five years ago. (The exam is offered in February as well, but July is, by far, the more popular month to take it.)

Part of the reason the number of test takers has grown so exponentially is the addition of fourth law school in the state -- the University of St. Thomas School of Law -- which opened its doors in 2001 and began graduating students three years later.

One does wonder how many lawyers the Twin Cities market can sustain. However, before anyone panics too much, when I was sworn into the Massachusetts bar in the 1990s, there were 2,000 others sworn in that same day. Minnesota has not quite gotten to that point -- yet anyway. And, as we all know, the more lawyers you graduate, the more you suddenly find you need ...

Sunday, July 1, 2007

CLE with lawyer lawmakers worth getting up for

Oddly, one of my favorite educational programs at last week's Minnesota State Bar Association convention was one of the most sparsely attended (of the ones I went to, anyway). Called "There Ought to be a Law," it traced the most effective ways to lobby lawmakers for change. The panelists included two lawyer lawmakers -- Joe Atkins and Julianne Ortman -- and a lawyer who lobbied for some modifications in construction laws (Dean Thomson). MSBA lobbyist Lloyd Grooms was the moderator. So given that the info was both interesting and valuable, why were only a handful of folks there?

Sigh. It was scheduled for early Friday morning on the final day of the convention. Not helping matters, there was a large window behind the panelists affording a view of a picture-perfect June day. Not to mention the night before there was the President's Reception, New Lawyers Section After-Hours Social and the New Lawyers After-After-Hours Social (those new lawyers do like to party!). The latter event featured one young woman lawyer doing a singing and dancing rendition of Nancy Sinatra's "These boots were made for walking" (while wearing fashionable white high-top boots yet). The entertainment interlude was apparently to pay off some sort of bet. However, I promised not to name names. What happens at the bar convention, stays at the bar convention.

In any event, I got up bright and early Friday morning to go to the presentation, and it was well worth it. Perhaps we will write something on the topic in Minnesota Lawyer for those who felt compelled to sleep in.