A judge's story

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May 5, 2003 // UPDATED 10:50 am - April 30, 2007
By: Judge Mel Dickstein
Judge Mel Dickstein

Six months in the life of a judicial rookie

Editor\'s Note: In TV dramas, judges are portrayed as bedrocks of judicial wisdom, stoic bystanders or incompetents who must be redeemed by heroic attorneys.

Mel Dickstein\'s experience is far more human. Dickstein, a successful litigator at the Downtown law firm Robins Kaplan Miller & Ciresi, was one of the few who left after the firm won a massive tobacco settlement - for a much lower-paying job as a Hennepin County District Judge.

In the final half of a two-part series, Judge Dickstein recounts his experience as a judicial rookie - dealing with police seeking warrant approval at any hour of the day or night, meting out appropriate justice to poor defendants and handling first-degree murder trials.

Judge Dickstein heard his first case on Sept. 30, 2002. He picks up his tale in the late fall.

In mid-November, I received a respite from my usual duties when I was given the job of \"Signing Judge.\"

The signing judge sits in a courtroom or chambers and receives an endless stream of people who need a judge\'s signature on some important piece of paper. Police officers and deputies want complaints or search warrants signed; others seek approval of a protective order from someone who has hurt or harassed them. Some need to have document filing fees waived, or need an estate administrator appointed.

During signing week, a judge is on call 24 hours, and may be called upon to review a search warrant in the middle of the night. My young son was all eyes as he watched the officers who sought out my assistance during the evening hours, their cars outside our home with lights flashing. I can only wonder what my neighbors thought of all the activity on our street!

The signing judge gets a sad glimpse into the criminal activity going on in the county. A suburban woman is terrorized by a hooded man who turns out to be her ex-husband. A woman is brutally beaten and raped by someone she had just recently met. An alleged murderer is helped to escape police and hide out from capture. A young child is molested. Of course we know that these things occur in the life of our community. We just don\'t realize that they can all occur in a single week, or even a single day.

It is the week before Thanksgiving, and I am glad the week is over. I presided this week over minor trials without a jury. I felt time and again that I needed an oracle, or some form of divine intervention which would provide me the wisdom to discern the truth, or to know what to do when the truth is clear but the remedy is not.

A police officer catches a car going 50 in a 35 m.p.h. zone on Hiawatha Avenue. The officer uses a radar device to clock the speed of the car. The radar device is properly calibrated and the officer properly trained in the use of the device. This appears to be a simple case. I wonder why it is even before me.

Then the defendant testifies. He is Latino and needs an interpreter. He testifies that when the officer stopped him, the officer frisked him, subjected him to a DWI test (which he passed) and put him in back of the squad car while the officer checked for bench warrants and license status, finding everything in order. Why, he asked, was he treated this way?

An officer tickets cars for violating the 15-minute parking zone in front of a small business. He testifies that he marks the tires and then tickets the cars only when the maximum time limit has expired. The 66-year-old business owner testifies tearfully how fearful, picked on and harassed she feels. She pays $200 per year for the 15-minute zone. The officer is the only one on the force who tickets her - 14 times. She claims that her delivery vehicle is never there more than 5 or 10 minutes. Now she has had to close her business to come to the courthouse to testify, and she is losing business that she can ill-afford to lose. Crying, she asks for help.

A young African American woman is stopped in a northern suburb for failing to stop at a red light before turning right. She is on her way home. It is near midnight. The officer says that he observed her in front of him, and followed her when he observed her traffic violation. The defendant testifies that the officer went by her in the intersection, saw her, then did a U-turn, followed her and then stopped her. She cries as she recounts that the officer asked her all sorts of questions that she thought were out of place. She testified that she has had a number of moving violations in the past, but has never challenged any because she was guilty, but she is not guilty this time, and she does not feel she was treated properly.

I try to rule correctly. I think that I usually do. But no matter how small or large the matter, I play it over in my mind.

A former partner of mine, now a judge in another state, sent me an e-mail when I was appointed, advising me never to second-guess myself, and never to take the matter home. I suppose it is good advice, but it is advice that I find difficult to take.

Of course there are the easy cases, like that of the Domino\'s Pizza delivery man. He was speeding, but he did not want me to find him guilty. He said through an interpreter that he was afraid that he would lose his license to drive. But his driving record was relatively clean, and the officer had caught him on radar. I found him guilty, cut his fine in half because he could ill-afford the fine (he had a wife and two children and earned $7.50 per hour) and told him that if his employer gave him a hard time about the ticket, to have someone call me and I would intercede on his behalf. I explained to him that all they had to tell me was that they were calling on behalf of the Domino\'s Pizza delivery man!

Some days events are funny, like the responsible, mature woman with the falsetto voice who got so angry at another woman who called her names at a grocery checkout stand that she hit the other woman\'s car in the parking lot, causing several hundred dollars of damage.

\"Judge,\" she said as she pled guilty, \"do you want to hear what she called me?\"

I assured her that it was not necessary. When I sentenced her, her eyes got very big, until I explained that she was not going to go to jail. Her response was to let out a loud, falsetto \"Praised be the Lord\" that everyone in the Court appeared to enjoy.

But more often, the matters are devastatingly sad. A homeless suburban woman on drugs is picked up on a theft warrant; a woman is held by her ex-husband and beaten and tortured for five days before she escapes; another woman is beaten and choked by her boyfriend until she loses consciousness; a mover gets into a fight with a tenant in a building, and his co-workers stand by while he is beaten; a talented professional is in danger of losing his career and his family to alcoholism; a sweet-looking 17-year-old comes in with her mother for a name change - and the 17-year-old is accompanied by her 5-year-old child.

Daily, there are people who are frightened, abused, hurt, poor, sick, sad, and sometimes without hope.

December

I have been fortunate to have many lawyers appear before me who are good at what they do. I genuinely appreciate them. The best of them have not lost their sense of perspective and are helpful to the judge. I remember those lawyers, I appreciate them, and I will help them if I can do so in keeping with my responsibilities.

Some lawyers don\'t understand that the facts really matter to me. I can be influenced in my ruling or decision if they will only effectively marshal the facts that are best for their client. Other lawyers just want their way. On rare occasion, there is the lawyer who thinks that he or she can control what the judge knows or what the judge does. But for the most part, the lawyers have been a pleasure.

I am often asked to fine people, but I am increasingly reluctant to do so because it is so often counterproductive. People who cannot afford fines do not pay them. Of course, there are consequences. A bench warrant may issue for their arrest, or they may lose their driver\'s license. The poor person who is punished for an infraction by a fine, and then fined again for not paying the fine, quickly finds himself on a treadmill from which there is no easy escape. There is a Kafkaesque quality to all of this, and so whenever possible, I give defendants who cannot afford a fine the option of performing work in a County program called Sentence to Service. It is not a perfect solution, for the poor must work while the well-to-do get away with a fine that has little impact on their lives.

January

I will begin presiding over criminal trials in February. I have already begun to receive some assignments: a first-degree murder case, and a case involving allegations of falsity in a political campaign.

The attorneys in these cases are new to me, and the challenges are different. I spend a week researching First Amendment case law while attending to my other assignments. It is a fascinating area of the law, often pitting allegations of wrong against the freedom of speech, one of our most cherished rights.

Before me is a former candidate for elected office criminally charged with a violation of a statute governing fair campaign practices. I am called upon to rule on the statute\'s constitutionality, and the legal propriety of the statute\'s application in this case. My ruling will be a matter of public record, and in time the Court of Appeals and perhaps the Supreme Court will have the opportunity to tell me if they agree.

February

At last I have begun my criminal trials assignment. Of course, I do not immediately begin trying cases. Most cases settle, and then plead before me. Others must have hearings held on the admissibility of evidence, with the result of my ruling determining how the case will be resolved.

One such case involves a DWI; a suburban man reaches his house and leaves his car, only to be approached by a police officer who is investigating a report of a suspicious vehicle next door. When the officer speaks to the man, the officer detects alcohol and observes the man unsteady on his feet. The defendant asserts that the police officer made an illegal stop. The police say that the stop was lawful and authorized. The outcome of this case may depend on the resolution of this issue.

I am also assigned harassment cases and housing cases. I get creditor\'s proceedings in which someone claims that their assets are exempt from seizure, but the creditor challenges the claim. A woman\'s car is repossessed. The credit company wants to attach $900 of her assets, because they are in her account. The monies are in fact her son\'s from Social Security payments that she receives for him. The woman has no source of income other than welfare payments, childcare payments or Social Security.

The creditor\'s attorney does a fine job in explaining the law and is clear about informing me of the options available. He seems to be saying that he cannot agree to disregard the monies on behalf of his client, but I can order them protected. He is being an officer of the court in the truest and finest sense of the phrase. I thank him and rule for the woman. I make a point of telling her how decently the lawyer has just acted.

At last, I get my first felony jury trial, a first-degree assault case. A man is accused of entering a barbershop, being asked to leave, and then using a baseball bat to strike one of the barbers in the face. His defense is self-defense.

The trial begins. At last, I am performing the work that I came to do. The jury carefully considers the evidence and convicts the defendant.

I am enjoying the role of trial judge. The dynamic between a judge and jury is a special one. They smile at me and I at them. This is every trial lawyer\'s dream.

I also enjoy the give-and-take with the lawyers. I try to be as correct in my rulings as I can be, and as fair to both sides as possible.

March

In the course of five weeks I try three jury trials: the first-degree assault, a first-degree murder and a DWI involving a professional athlete. Each case provides its own challenges. The attorneys perform well in each case. In some cases, the lawyers\' talent makes their efforts seem easy, but in fact they display substantial skill honed after years of effort.

I must make some hard decisions without regard to whom they favor or disfavor. Sometimes those decisions are well received by one side, sometimes by the other. Sometimes, I wish that an attorney had handled a matter differently.

I recall a Federal judge before whom I appeared in Philadelphia. He completely reversed himself on the validity of a $250 million claim. He said that he was not above admitting that he was wrong. I bring that lesson with me, as well.

The end of the beginning

My first six months on the bench are almost over, but I feel as though the excitement is just beginning. I completed my decision on the constitutionality of the campaign practices act, I ruled on the validity of the stop in the suburban DWI case, and I received a new assignment. I am asked to temporarily take over the civil case assignment for a judge who must go on medical leave for several weeks. Since I am an experienced civil trial lawyer, the decision has been made that I should be able to step right in and rule on motions and try civil cases. It is an exciting challenge.

It is a new world. I am challenged by it. I still have much to learn. I have many wonderful people around me to provide advice. There are so many who have been of great help. I can\'t wait to see what tomorrow will bring.