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Friday, August 15, 2008

Contempt proceding against public defender dropped

Here's an update of a prior story, "Scheduling conflict leads to contempt proceeding for 3rd District public defender."

The contempt proceeding against 3rd Judicial District, the interim chief public defender Karen Duncan has been dropped, according to her lawyer, Philip Villaume. Villaume said that Judge Casey Christian has accepted his client's explanation for not being at a hearing at the scheduled time. (Duncan had a conflicting appearance in another county and arrived late to Christian's courtroom.)

Website profiles and rates MN lawyers

Earlier this week, Avvo, Inc., a free consumer-focused website that provides ratings and profiles of lawyers, announced that it has expanded its database to include every attorney in the states of Minnesota and Arkansas.

According to a press release announcing the expansion, attorney profiles are now available in 20 states and the District of Columbia, and cover approximately 80 percent of licensed attorneys across the country. The site claims to include descriptions of attorneys’ practice areas, work experience, industry recognition and disciplinary sanctions. It also claims to collect and display client reviews submitted by consumers and peer reviews submitted by attorneys.

Curious, I clicked on the site and checked out several licensed attorneys I know. For most of them, there didn’t seem to be much information available -- not even their practice area.

Nonetheless, I encourage you to check it out. It can’t hurt to make sure that what’s there is accurate. And apparently you can “claim” your own profile for free, which allows you to make updates, invite lawyers to endorse you and invite clients to submit ratings. You can judge for yourself if you think the site is worthwhile.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

This week in history…

On Aug. 13, 1849, Minnesota Territory's first court session was held in Stillwater. And according to the Minnesota Historical Society's Book of Days, only one man on the jury wore boots — everyone else had moccasins.

Just look at how far we've come. Nobody wears moccasins anymore... we report for jury duty in flip-flops!

If you'd like to learn more about Minnesota Territory, check out the historical society's online exhibit here, or better yet, go see it in person.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Jill Clark seeks to get her opponent, Justice Lorie Gildea, disqualified

We told you the race for Justice Lorie Gildea's seat would be particularly interesting to watch this election season, and so far it hasn't been disappointing.

Jill Clark (on left), one of three candidates challenging Gildea (on right) for the seat, has filed an action with the Minnesota Supreme Court seeking to disqualify Gildea and have the justice's name removed from the ballot. The crux of the argument is that Gov. Tim Pawlenty originally appointed Gildea as a seat holder under the constitutional provision allowing governors to fill judicial vacancies until a "successor" is elected. Clark argues that Gildea cannot be her own "successor," and therefore is ineligible run for her own seat.

It's a novel argument unlikely to wash given that it flies in the face of the longstanding procedures under which most of the members of the state's judiciary initially got and retained their seats. (The vast majority of judges in Minnesota, like Gildea, were originally appointed by the governor and then stood for election to retain their seats.)

Clark also seeks to strike the statutorily authorized language from the primary ballot identifying Gildea as an incumbent. Challengers historically have not liked the incumbency designation because of their feeling that voters, often acting with little actual other knowledge of the candidates, tend to favor the incumbent in judicial elections. However, no prior challenge to this designation has ever been successful.

I think there is little probability Clark will prevail with either of these requests. More significant is what they demonstrate about Clark the candidate; the Minneapolis lawyer will apparently pursue her judicial campaign with the same aggressiveness for which she has become known in her litigation practice. It's highly unusual for a candidate in a judicial campaign in Minnesota to make such a public lunge for her opponent's jugular, particularly when her opponent is a sitting Supreme Court justice.

The other candidates running against Gildea are public defender Rick Gallo and Hennepin County District Court Judge Deborah Hedlund. The field will be weeded down to two in the September primary.

Place your bets now: How many RNC arrests?

Here’s an idea for your next office pool: How many protesters will be arrested at the Republican National Convention in September?

There seems to be some disagreement among various parties with an interest in such disparate topics as maintaining law and order and maintaining citizens’ rights to protest. The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota predicts 800 arrests during the four-day convention, while the St. Paul Police Department thinks the figure will be a fraction of that.

Meanwhile, however, Ramsey County Sherriff Bob Fletcher said the ACLU’s projection might be more accurate. Complicating matters is the recent history of GOP conventions: 1,800 were arrested at the 2004 RNC in New York City, while the 2000 convention in Philadelphia saw only about 600 arrests. (Chicago ’68 notwithstanding, Democratic conventions tend to be much more peaceful affairs.)

We’re not bookmakers, but if we were to devise an “over/under” figure, it would lean closer to the Philadelphia total. After crunching the numbers, our official prediction: 755 arrests, or about one for every three Republican delegates in attendance.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Judge Michael Sovis reprimanded, fined

First Judicial District Judge Michael Sovis has been publicly reprimanded by the Board on Judicial Standards and fined $1000 for improper treatment of a member of the public who was engaged in a dispute with a friend of Sovis and Sovis’ spouse. According to the board, Sovis personally instituted contempt proceedings against the man and personally ordered him arrested. The board stated that Sovis did not advise the man that he had the right to an attorney or a trial.

The Board concluded that Judge Sovis’ actions were contrary to the Minnesota Code on Judicial Conduct, Canons 1, 2A, 2B, 3A(4) 3A(5), 3A(7), 3A(9),3D(1) and Canon 4A, as well as the Rules of the Board on Judicial Standards, Rules 4(a)(5) and (6). The board said that Sovis’ conduct did not uphold the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, gave the appearance of impropriety, violated his duty of impartiality, did not conduct his extra-judicial activities in a way that did not conflict with his judicial obligations, and engaged in conduct that brings the judicial office into disrepute.

Four Minneapolis firms among best for women

The number of women vacating the legal profession has caused concern and comment for years. Some good news on this issue arrived today with the announcement that three Minneapolis law firms, and one national firm with offices in Minneapolis, made the cut of the best law firms for women according to Working Mother magazine and Flex Time Lawyers.

Kudos to Dorsey & Whitney, Gray Plant Mooty, Lindquist & Vennum, and Littler Mendelson for affording, according to Working Mother’s press release, “female and family-friendly benefits.”

Interestingly, applications for the accolade were up 30 percent this year, perhaps indicating that the importance of family-friendly scheduling for men and women, as well as attracting and retaining women lawyers, is gaining attention among law firm management. In addition to family-friendly benefits, firms were recognized in other ways. Among the current programs in place at the winning firms: 98 percent of winning firms host networking groups for female lawyers; 68 percent offer mentoring for senior female associates; and 62 percent offer management training for women.

Of primary concern: Minnesota Lawyer to publish judicial candidate info

Minnesota Lawyer sent out questionnaires to and collected biographical information on all the candidates involved in judicial primary races. There are four such races -- two for state Supreme Court, one for Hennepin County District Court and one for Ramsey County District Court. Over the next three weeks, Minensota Lawyer will print the information we collected from the candidates. We will start next Monday with the Supreme Court races.

Minnesota Lawyer also plans to make the information available to voters on the Web. More on that next week. Thanks to the candidates for their cooperation, and stay tuned for more judicial election coverage.

Monday, August 11, 2008

A Bright spot on the 8th Circuit bench for 40 years

Judge Myron H. Bright, a senior judge on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, celebrates his 40th anniversary on the 8th Circuit bench this Saturday. Bright continues his judging, having served with both the 8th and 9th Circuits over the past year. He also was a jurist-in-residence at law schools in Hawaii and North Dakota and served as a Rule of Law emissary for the U.S. State Department, meeting with judicial representatives from Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

Bright has already celebrated his milestone. His former law clerks, most of them practicing lawyers and law school professors, honored Judge Bright at a 40th anniversary celebration in Minneapolis on July 25-27.

Minnesota Lawyer blog sends its best wishes out to Bright, who hails from Eveleth and is a graduate of the University of Minnesota. Both the man and the career are truly remarkable. We thank Bright for four decades of steadfast service.

Scheduling conflict leads to contempt proceeding for 3rd District public defender

In the 3rd Judicial District, the interim chief public defender, Karen Duncan, faces a contempt charge for not being present at one of two court proceedings scheduled in different counties for the same time.

Duncan was scheduled to handle a jury trial in Faribault (in Rice County) and to simultaneously be at a revocation hearing 15 miles away in Owatonna (in Steele County) on the morning of June 30. Upon receipt of the notice of conflicting hearings, she contacted court authorities in Owatonna, informed them of the scheduling conflict and requested a different hearing date for the revocation hearing. But Judge Casey Christian denied the request, and when Duncan did not appear at the scheduled time, set a court date of August 22 for her to show cause why she shouldn’t be held in contempt for missing the hearing.

Due to a hiring freeze enacted in 2007 and a round of budget and staff cuts that took effect last month, defenders are shorthanded. The Office of Public Defense has undertaken a number of steps to deal with its resource issues, including no longer representing parents in child-protection proceedings. Defenders more often than ever find themselves rushing from courtroom to courtroom trying to handle multiple matters.

“This is a case where the lawyer told the courts in two counties that she couldn’t be in both places at once,” said State Public Defender John Stuart in a press release. “We know the courts need to carry on their business, but as we have told everyone at the Capitol and in the justice system, along with losing 53 lawyer positions we have also lost the ability to do everything the courts want us to do, as quickly as they want to do it. The chief justice says there will be delays in the courts now, and, regretfully, we are part of that problem.”

Stuart told Minnesota Lawyer that, for the most part, the courts have been understanding of the resource issues faced by defenders and that there have been fewer showdowns over reductions in services than he originally anticipated.

The State Board of Public Defense has hired outside counsel, Philip Villaume, to handle Duncan’s hearing. Villaume has requested that Christian be disqualified as a material witness. Villaume has requested that the case be assigned to 3rd District Assistant Chief Judge Robert Benson because 3rd District Chief Judge William Johnson is also a witness in the case.

Villaume told Minnesota Lawyer that his client rushed back from Faribault to Owatonna, arriving approximately an hour after the time for which the revocation hearing had been scheduled. Villaume said that his client believes Judge Christian saw her in the courtroom, which is why Christian will be called as a witness. (Johnson is a witness because he is the judge Duncan was appearing before in Faribault.)

"This is a case where a lawyer was running behind schedule," Villaume said, noting public defenders frequently have to juggle multiple appearances and it doesn't always work out. With recent staff cuts, this is true more than ever, he added.

Villaume provided the following statistics demonstrating how busy 3rd District public defenders are. In the first six months of 2008, the caseload of the office of 17 full-time and 15 part-time defenders included: 1,106 felonies, 728 gross misdemeanors, 1,663 misdemeanors, 1,153 probation violations and more.