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Friday, October 24, 2008

Hennepin County judicial race heats up

The race for the judicial seat held by Hennepin County District Court Chief Judge James Swenson is heating up in these final 10 days of the election season.

Swenson is facing a challenge from longtime Hennepin County referee Thomas Haeg. Yesterday, we received a press release from the folks over at Haeg’s campaign, notifying us of a Family Medical Leave Act-related disability discrimination and retaliation charge that a former Hennepin County referee filed last year against Hennepin County and Swenson. According to the Haeg campaign, the charge resulted in a “quiet” $75,000 settlement -- paid for with tax dollars, of course. (While the discrimination charge is a public document, according to Steve Shapiro, the communications consultant for the Thomas Haeg for Judge Committee, knowledge of the settlement amount came from the complainant’s attorney, Seymour Mansfield. A call to Mansfield was not immediately returned.)

I know from having practiced in the employment law area that settlement agreements in cases like this usually contain confidentiality clauses, so presumably neither side can discuss the specifics of the charge. (We attempted to get a comment from Swenson’s campaign chairs, but so far have been unable to do so. If or when we do, we’ll provide an update.) The Haeg campaign believes that the Star Tribune is working on a story, so stay tuned.

It seems to me that both Swenson and Haeg are qualified for the District Court seat and election of either would be a good result for the county. But I’m not sure I approve of the Haeg campaign's use of the discrimination charge and the resulting settlement as a last-minute tactic to turn voters against the incumbent. It seems a little desperate, and even unfair, given that Swenson is likely bound by a confidentiality agreement and can’t discuss the allegations. Moreover, people settle lawsuits for a variety of reasons -- not necessarily because they committed the acts they are accused of. Ultimately, voters will have to decide for themselves how much credence to give to the allegations -- which is really all they are at this point.

UPDATE: The Strib's article, written by Rochelle Olson, is now available, and it provides a lot more detail. Click here for some interesting reading.

Veterans and the criminal justice system

Minnesota Lawyer just posted an interesting story from our upcoming issue on the justice system's efforts to deal with post traumatic stress syndrome in criminal cases involving veterans. As one source puts it in the article, combat veterans can become "addicted to chaos" and have trouble readjusting to society when they return. It doesn't seem fair to treat these cases as every other criminal cases when some of the problem is caused by their time spent in service to us in some very difficult situations.

There are no easy answers, but, as more and more combat veterans return from overseas, it's something the justice system in Minnesota (and elsewhere) will have to grapple with with increasing frequency. Fortunately, we have a forward-thinking Legislature in this regard. The following is an excerpt from the story:

Fortunately, Minnesota is ahead of the curve when it comes to making concessions for veteran offenders. With help from veterans’ advocate Guy Gambill, the state Legislature this year amended a state statute to take into account the mental health status of veterans during the sentencing phase of criminal proceedings.

Now, if a defendant in Minnesota is convicted of a crime, it’s recommended that the court ask if he or she is a veteran. If the defendant is a veteran and has been diagnosed as having a mental illness, the court may consult with the federal or state Department of Veterans Affairs to determine treatment options in lieu of or along with a jail sentence.

Veterans have done a lot for us and deserve our help when they have adjustment troubles when they return. While our laws must be enforced, I am glad in Minnesota it will be done in a way that takes into account the trauma veterans have suffered in our behalf.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Stop stress toy abuse

Let's put aside all the partisan bickering for a moment and focus on an issue that tugs on the heartstrings of all Americans: stress toy abuse.

Westlaw video

That's right, Westlaw just released another brilliant commercial for its legal research services. Like before, the Sally Struthers-esque spoof offers plenty of hilarious stress toy carnage. But on a happier note, Westlaw offers to adopt all those poor stress toys that have been abused by disgruntled legal researchers.

After all, shouldn't you give your stress toy a new home — a new hope?

Westlaw video

The 2-minute must-see video is here.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Appellate court video series: Justice Paul Anderson

Justice Paul Anderson is the second most senior of the seven Minnesota Supreme Court justices. He has served on the state high court since 1994. Previously, he was chief judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, and, prior to that, an attorney in private practice. His challenger in the upcoming election is Tim Tingelstad, a 9th Judicial District magistrate. (Unfortunately, we were unable to arrange a video interview with Tingelstad for this video series.)

A judicial history buff, Anderson brings a lot of institutional knowledge to the job. He is also extremely active in the court's outreach efforts, and has earned the informal title of the court's "goodwill ambassador."

Click here for the YouTube version.

E-mail etiquette -- Judicial candidate's edition

There's an interesting article in the PiPress today involving the judicial race between Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea and her challenger, Hennepin County District Court Judge Deborah Hedlund. According to the press report, the owner of a sign-making company sent Hedlund an e-mail with the subject line, "Can Muslims Be Good Americans?" The e-mail includes false claims that Barack Obama is a Muslim and that he won't salute the flag or put his hand on his heart during the national anthem. At some point the e-mail, which I have not seen, apparently goes on to talk about campaign signs.

Hedlund starts her response to the sender as follows: "We speak the same language. And I still need to let voters know they have a choice to 'Seek Justice, Vote For Experience' for the Minnesota Supreme Court." Hedlund went on to discuss the details of the campaigns signs before inadvertantly hitting the "reply to all" button. Somebody forwarded a copy of the exchange to the PiPress.

Hedlund told the PiPress that she was ignoring the first part of the e-mail and that she went right to the sign discussion. The "speaking the same language" comment referred strictly to the sign discussion, she says.

Given the context and the remarks that follow afterward, I think her explanation is possible, maybe even plausible. However, Hedlund then digs herself into another hole. Stressing how busy she has been with her campaign and judicial duties, she responds to the PiPress as follows when asked whether she thought Obama was a Muslim:

"I have no idea what he is. My level of information about the presidential candidates would not fill a thimble."

Hmmm. Coming from a candidate for a high public office, I find that statement disturbing. I mean the presidential elections are fairly important, aren't they? Can you really be an effective Supreme Court justice with a thimble-full of knowledge about the incoming president? Don't we have a civic duty to educate ourselves on the elections? In short, the response strikes me as ill-advised.

Perhaps we can chalk it all up to a case of foot-in-mouth disease (just ask Michele Bachmann). But it certainly doesn't help to have an embarrassing episode like this late in the campaign. Plus Gildea and Hedlund were both scheduled to go before the PiPress editorial board today seeking the paper's endorsement. I wonder how that went?

Petters woes: too much to Baer?

A sharp-eyed reader pointed out to us recently that one of our 2006 Attorneys of the Year was David E. Baer, in-house counsel for Petters Group Worldwide. “Is he in any trouble?” the reader wanted to know.

Not at the moment, but Baer did resign from the board of Petters-owned Sun Country Airlines at the same time as his boss, who accused of running a $3 billion investment fraud scheme for 13 years. Tom Petters is scheduled to appear tomorrow before Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis in Minneapolis in an effort to overturn an earlier ruling that Petters be held until the charges against him are resolved.

While he hasn’t been charged with anything, Baer has been cited in some news reports as Tom Petters’ right-hand man within the company, so trouble may still be on the horizon for him and other Petters executives as investigations into the company continue.

Baer, a former corporate lawyer at Leonard, Street and Deinard, was noted as an Attorney of the Year for his work in helping the company acquire Sun Country.

We just hope this isn't the start of a Sports Illustrated-like "Attorneys of the Year Curse."

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Gildea's campaign debates Hedlund's debate claim

Hennepin County District Court Judge Deborah Hedlund's statement on her Facebook page that her opponent, Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea, has canceled debate appearances with her six times is itself debatable, according to Gildea's campaign.

As we blogged before, Hedlund has an entry on her Facebook page asserting that Gildea is "trying to get [her] opponent to show up for a debate. [Gildea] has canceled six times now."

Gildea's campaign chair, Minneapolis attorney Sue Holden, contested Hedlund's characterization of the facts. While acknowledging Gildea was unable to participate in a League of Women Voters' debate due to scheduling conflicts, Holden said Hedlund's statement that Gildea has "canceled" numerous other appearance is incorrect.

Contacted by Minnesota Lawyer, Hedlund explained that the league's debate was rescheduled twice to accommodate Gildea, ultimately to no avail. Hedlund also said she and Gildea were slated to go before the Pioneer Press editorial board earlier this month, but Gildea had another scheduling conflict. (The two are now scheduled to go before the paper's editorial board tomorrow.) Hedlund also said a radio appearance on Minnesota Public Radio had to be rescheduled twice. (Currently the appearance is scheduled for next week.) Hedlund also pointed out that Gildea declined to appear with her on two Ramsey County cable access shows.

For her part, Gildea reported that she is extremely busy with the combination of her judicial duties and campaigning statewide during her off time. The justice said she has to pick and choose her appearances, and frequently runs into conflicts. Moreover, she noted that two of the allegedly "canceled" joint appearances -- the Pioneer Press editorial board and MPR -- are still happening, they have just been rescheduled. (Gildea and Hedlund are slated to go before the Pioneer Press tomorrow; they are scheduled to appear on MPR next week.)

Additionally, Gildea and Hedlund have a joint appearance tonight. Both have RSVP'd to be among the judicial candidates who will address attendees at the 8th District Bar Association at its meeting at Dangerfield's in Shakopee. (Eighth District Bar President Colleen Goggins King told me that the meeting will likely have double the usual number of attendees. The function room being used holds about 70 people, and a capacity crowd is expected.)

Hedlund is still hoping for a debate with Gildea (none of the scheduled joint appearances will be in debate format ). Hedlund said she is willing to appear any time and any place of Gildea's choosing.

While Gildea said she is fine with the joint appearances and even a candidates' forum, she takes issue with the idea of a "debate" used in the context of a judicial campaign. Debating "hot-button issues" is for legislative races, not judicial ones, she said.

Appellate video series: Judge Terri Stoneburner

Continuing with our video series for the appellate court races, today we bring you Court of Appeals Judge Terri Stoneburner. Stoneburner, who has served on the appellate bench for eight years, faces a challenge from International Falls attorney Dan Griffith, who has run unsuccessfully for a judgeship twice before. Stoneburner's prior experience includes 10 years as a trial court judge and 10 years in private practice in Mankato. She also worked for four years as a staff attorney for the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights.

Bridge collapse hearings commence

Hearings on the 35W bridge collapse claims are underway. Minneapolis attorney Susan Holden, head of the special master panel, said that 179 claims have been filed and 70 of those will be heard by the full panel. Nine claimants have waived hearings, leaving 100 cases to be heard among the three special masters, although a few claims have already been heard, Holden said. A school bus from Waite House community center with 52 children in it was on the bridge when it went down. Yesterday, Oct. 20, the panel heard testimony from the bus driver as well as the program director and youth coordinator from Waite House. “The purpose of the testimony was to set up the testimony of the kids and understand what happened,” Holden said. “It sets the context for the medical and post-traumatic stress claims.”

The hearing at the offices of Sieben, Grose, Von Holtum & Carey also provided a preview for lawyers of claimants. Holden said about eight lawyers attended the hearings. All the hearings will be concluded by the end of January and offers must be made by Feb. 28.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The un-American dream

Being something of a fan of the First Amendment (it's one of my favorite amendments, in fact), I was somewhat taken aback by Rep. Michele Bachmann's remark that she is concerned that Barack Obama may have "anti-American views." And, of course, her calling on the media to investigate her fellow members of Congress to determine whether they are anti- or pro-America didn't help either.

Congress itself once did the investigating of the "un-American," so some may think turnabout is fair play. But I think the vast majority of folks realize that what is and is not "un-American" (or anti-American) hinges largely on the mindset of the one tossing around the inflammatory word. Offering constructive criticisms of one's country is the hallmark of a free society, and, if you ask me, a higher form of patriotism than mouthing platitudes as it heads down the wrong path.

Bachmann has since backed off her unfortunate comments to some degree, so hopefully that's the end of it. Just in case, I am switching to American cheese on all my luncheon sandwiches, lest I be labeled anti-American. I have always been neutral toward Swiss cheese anyway. And, needless to say, I won't be having that sandwich on French bread ...

In any event, I'd expect a lot more nasty attacks and counterattacks leading up to the election. The good news is there's just two weeks to go. Then we can finally start talking about who is going to run in 2012 ...

Video Clip: Judge Deborah Hedlund

As we continue with our video election coverage of the state appellate court races, we present Hennepin County District Court Judge Deborah Hedlund, who is challenging Judge Lorie Skjerven Gildea for her seat on the Minnesota Supreme Court. Hedlund has spent the last 28 years on the trial court bench. Prior to being a judge, Hedlund worked in the Minnetonka City Attorney's Office and as an attorney in private practice.

In the clip below, Hedlund discussed why she believes voters should pick her for the Supreme Court seat currently occupied by Gildea. (Video of Gildea appears in the post below.)

Click here for the YouTube version.

Video clip: Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea

Minnesota Lawyer this week presents its video coverage of the three appellate court races. We start today with the race between Supreme Court Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea and Hennepin County District Court Judge Deborah Hedlund.

Gildea, who was appointed to the Supreme Court by Gov. Tim Pawlenty in late 2005, served briefly on the Hennepin County District Court. She has been also been a prosecutor in Hennepin County, counsel for the University of Minnesota and an attorney in private practice.

In the interview below, Gildea discusses the reasons she believes voters should retain her on the state Supreme Court.

Click here for the YouTube version.