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Friday, July 25, 2008

Right out of the gate, Ramsey judicial race generates some heat

The eight-attorney race for the open seat in Ramsey County is shaping up to be a hotly contested one. (The seat was left vacant by retiring Judge John Finley).

The opening salvo was fired by the campaign of Gail Chang Bohr (right), which shot off a letter to another candidate, assistant Hennepin County attorney Howard Orenstein (left), calling him to task for attending and discussing his campaign at a meeting of the Fourth District DFL Executive Committee. While court cases have cleared the way for candidates to go to political party functions, bar groups, concerned about keeping judicial races nonpartisan, have frowned upon the practice.

In the letter, Chang Bohr's campaign pointed out that the Ramsey County Bar Association planned to circulate a pledge to candidates (which it has since done) asking candidates to agree to eschew all political activities, including going to the gatherings of political parties, not withstanding the legal precedent that would allow them to do so.

Orenstein, a former DFL lawmaker, said he would not have gone to the meeting if he knew it would conflict with the pledge candidates were going to be asked to sign. He also said he downloaded and signed the RCBA pledge as soon as it became available on the group's website, and intends to abide by it. He maintained that he has no interest at all in infusing politics into his judicial campaign, and believes judicial races should be nonpartisan.

As far as campaign controversies go, this one's a pretty minor skirmish. What I think is interesting about it is that it is an indicator of how hard-fought this race will be as the eight candidates jockey to distinguish themselves in a crowded field in time for the Sept. 9 primary. (Only the top two vote-getters will earn a space on the November ballot.)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Would you give up your BlackBerry for an iPhone?

I've been watching the release of Apple's next-generation iPhone with tepid interest. Sure it's a sweet device, but my first-gen Samsung Blackjack was 3G-enabled when I picked it up a year ago. What's the big deal, I asked?

Charlie Rose addressed this question with several techies last night, and I was surprised to learn that people in the hallowed halls of Wired and TechCrunch are so enamored with the iPhone that they're putting their BlackBerries to bed.

Since attorneys are some of the most dedicated BlackBerry users on the planet, I can't help but wonder how many have thought about trading-up. Just think, if the iPhone became standard issue for lawyers, how would that affect their respective cool factors?

I can't say, since I've never seen an iPhone-equipped attorney in the wild.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The kiss of death?

They say there's no such thing as bad publicity, but one would think that the local law firm of Lindquist & Vennum has not been enjoying its 15 minutes of fame on the always entertaining Above the Law blog.

A posting today, along with a follow up that links back to the original (click here), tells the tale of two female summer associates terminated from Lindquist after a night that allegedly included over imbibing and kissing each other at an after-hours event at "a local watering hole" following an official firm function. (A case of Minnesota nice run amok, perhaps?) Among the "facts" reported by the blog are the women are not lesbians (and at least one has a boyfriend), both women are "quite attractive'' (although I'm not sure of the relevance of that ...) and the extent of the kiss is currently unclear (i.e. whether they "made out" or merely kissed on the lips).

Without more information, it's difficult to know what to make of this. We'll see if the firm has anything it wants to add to what has been reported (and, if so, pass it on to you). I don't want to make too light of the whole thing, as it is obviously no laughing matter to the two law students involved (and please, please, please refrain from posting anything that contains any identifying information). In any event, try as I may, I can't get the refrain from "As time goes by" out of my head -- You must remember this: A kiss is just a kiss.

Jury-duty pay cut is the latest slap to state's justice system

Serving on a jury has never been glamorous, but jury duty is quickly turning from an often mundane and time-consuming civic exercise into an insulting one.

As a result of the $19 million shortfall faced by Minnesota's judicial system, the per-diem received by jurors will be cut from $20 to $10 (along with mileage and other reimbursements) starting on Aug. 4. The move is projected to save $1.1 million annually.

It wasn't long ago that jurors in Minnesota were paid $30 per day. With the most recent cut, jurors here are compensated at well below the national average, and for far less than the $40 that jurors in federal trials get.

Jury duty isn't exactly a sexy gig to begin with: It requires people to plan tentatively for trials that might not even take place, and to miss work and endure long, often tedious proceedings when they do take place. Employers are supposed to give workers paid time off when they're called for jury duty, but not all do. It's a no-win for those unlucky enough to be chosen for what should be a valuable way to engage the man on the street in the legal process.

Is cutting an already paltry stipend in half any way to ensure that Minnesota's trial juries will consist of intelligent, engaged citizens? And if $10 per day is all the state can spare, why not cut out the payment entirely before it's reduced to $5, then $2?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Slip-Slade-ing away from Hennepin race

As some of you have noticed, immediately after the filling period closed, the field went down from seven to six in the race for the open Hennepin County judicial seat. Why? One of the candidates -- Minneapolis attorney Nick Slade -- withdrew his name. (And, by the way, what a great-sounding name it is -- right out of a dime-store detective novel or 1940s film noir.)

Shortly after his decision to flee the crowded field, I called Slade and left a voicemail message for him seeking his reasons. The call went unreturned, which is why I didn't post anything about it here. But, since some of you appear to still be curious and since an anonymous commenter provided me a link, click here to see what Slade has to say on his campaign website on his decision. The crux of it is that a lot of people are running and, with his legal work, he doesn't feel he can put in the time and effort necessary to prevail.

It's not unusual for at least one candidate to withdraw his or her name immediately after the judicial-election filing period. (In fact, there is a brief withdrawal period after filings close that allows candidates to do exactly this.) This year, it was Slade who pulled out, leaving an even half dozen lawyers to run for the seat of retiring Judge Thomas Wexler. The good news? With six you get eggroll.

Justice Gildea saddles up for a real horse race

Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Lorie Gildea is in one of the more interesting horse races of this judicial-election season. Luckily for her, Gildea -- shown here in period costume for the Sesquicentennial -- is something of an equestrian, so that may gave her an advantage in taking the reins and dispelling the naysayers. OK, OK, I can hear your groans, but we had the photo, so I couldn't resist.

In all seriousness, Gildea is involved in one of the most interesting races -- with a field of opponents composed of a sitting District Court judge (Deborah Hedlund), a longtime public defender (Rick Gallo) and Jill Clark, a Minneapolis attorney with a reputation for being "combative" and "feisty" (the Strib's words, not mine). Some may recall in 2002, when Clark challenged Judge Thomas Wexler, the race got a little testy at points. I wouldn't expect Hedlund to be any shrinking violet either. In fact, Hedlund has already seemed to adopt a campaign theme that could potentially cause some friction -- her nearly three decades of trial court bench experience compared to the 2 1/2 months Gildea served in the Hennepin County District Court before being elevated to the high court. (You can, of course, argue the point of whether or not that trial court experience is superior to spending that time engaged in the practice of law, and, no doubt, Gildea will.) The third candidate, Gallo, has the advantage of having spent more than two decades as a public defender, currently working in (appropriately enough) the appellate division. However, he has said he does not plan to raise any funds for his campaign, so I imagine it will be pretty tough for him to get the word out. I would look for him to call attention to the crisis in the public-defense system created by the most recent round of state budget cuts.

Minneapolis attorney Susan Holden, Gildea's campaign chair, has said the campaign anticipates raising between $100,000 and $200,000, which would be similar to the amounts raised in the past by former Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz and former Justice James Gilbert when they successfully fended off challenges. Holden also said Gildea's campaign is prepared to raise more "if necessary." (Click here to see the full Minnesota Lawyer article on the judicial races.) While a low six-figure campaign may sound like a lot to some, it's actually not much to spend for a statewide campaign, particularly when one looks at the millions spent on the politicized judicial races experienced in some states. In one recent Wisconsin high court alone, more than $3.6 million was expended. Now that's a lot of hay!

First District challenge turns ugly

There is a very disturbing judicial campaign going on in the bucolic landscape of the First Judicial District. Dakota County Judge Joe Carter, pictured at right, is being challenged by Rice County prosecutor Nathaniel Reitz, who appears to be basing his campaign on the tragic case of Justin P. Farnsworth, who sexually assaulted a 9-year-old girl in his custody. Farnsworth had a 10-year old rape conviction but was described by officials as a “success story.” Carter, following the advice of experienced court-appointed custody evaluator David Jaehne, awarded custody of the child to Farnsworth with the consent of her mother, who evidently didn’t want her.

Reitz has adopted the dubious campaign tactic of linking from his Web site to a Google page of links to blog postings vilifying Carter. If you read all the way to the end of the muck, you get one link to an AP news story. That story raises the issue of whether a guardian ad litem should have been appointed for the child. It also pointed out that the case is one of many tragedies in the child-protection system.

Reitz’s bio says that he is a prosecutor who takes rape cases seriously, which no doubt is true. It doesn’t say that he is a volunteer guardian ad litem or serves any policy-making function with respect to the child protection system. Minnesota’s child protection system recently failed a federal audit, at least in part because the state is unwilling to devote the resources needed to keep up with cases in a timely manner. In the Farnsworth custody case, there were no allegations of abuse to require the appointment of a guardian ad litem and apparently no family or community members taking an interest. There were likely no funds available to pay a guardian ad litem and it’s a tremendous amount of work to ask a volunteer to contribute.

The state made its policy preferences even more clear this spring when it cut public-defender funding, which resulted in the defenders ceasing to represent parents in CHIPS cases. Since the defenders have previously said that they can’t manage criminal defense and CHIPS cases, their move came as no surprise. The absence of public defenders puts a huge strain on the child- protection system. Reitz would do better to think of some solutions to that problem rather than focus his campaign on crazy blog postings. He says the election is about judgment -- it's time to use some.

Monday, July 21, 2008

3rd Circuit: A bit of breast OK

Remember the infamous Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" episode? The AP reports that a three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has found that the FCC acted arbitrarily and capriciously in imposing a $550,000 fine on CBS over the 2004 Superbowl halftime show incident.

"The Commission's determination that CBS's broadcast of a nine-sixteenths of one second glimpse of a bare female breast was actionably indecent evidenced the agency's departure from its prior policy," the court found. "Its orders constituted the announcement of a policy change — that fleeting images would no longer be excluded from the scope of actionable indecency."

Government attorney salaries and more ...

I was just over at the Star Tribune's new "data center." At this site, the Strib is attempting to provide a central area for raw data that may (or may not) have some meaning to the public at large.

Curious what I could glean, I poked around a bit in the salary area. Here for, example, is a list of what folks make at the AG's Office, which is less than what one would make as an attorney working for Hennepin County (click here). Want to know what your favorite law professor over at the U of M makes? Click here.

I'm not sure about the utility of this yet. (The Strib promises more data is forthcoming.) A good portion of the data currently at the site (e..g. from home sale prices to Level 3 sex offenders) could be easily found elsewhere -- although I suppose a one-stop shopping site might make a data search marginally easier. Hopefully, the fact that the Strib is providing the raw information doesn't mean it will have any less of a commitment to putting the data in context. This is a valuable service when provided by knowledgeable reporters.

In any case, here's the link to the data center. I leave it to you to decide the value of the raw information it provides.