Charles Hamilton Houston (1895-1950)

Scene from the Old Courthouse in St. Louis where the Dred Scott case was filed

Scene from the Old Courthouse in St. Louis where the Dred Scott case was filed

Earlier this month the Ramsey County Bar Association presented a CLE seminar: Leadership for Social Justice. As part of that seminar, the quiet leadership of Charles Hamilton Houston was highlighted. To close out African American History Month, let us consider this astute civil rights figure. Though less well-known than some other civil rights pioneers, he was nonetheless key to ending the oppressive Jim Crow regime that defined our nation’s race relations in the period between the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era and the post-WWII Civil Rights Movement.

Born in 1895, Charles Hamilton Houston led a routine academic life of teaching English at Howard University until he became a First Lieutenant in the United States Army during WWI. Outraged at the poor treatment he saw heaped upon black soldiers from their fellow Americans, Houston vowed to dedicate his life to change. When he concluded his military service in 1919, he entered Harvard Law School and graduated in 1923.   While there, he was the first African American to serve as an editor of the Harvard Law Review. (Not to be confused with the Review’s first African American president.) In 1924 he was admitted to the D.C. Bar and joined his father’s law practice. In the years that followed, Houston became special counsel for the NAACP, and also joined the faculty at Howard University School of Law. In this academic capacity he became a mentor to Thurgood Marshall, who would later argue Brown vs. The Board of Education.

It was around this time that Houston struck upon the idea that unequal education was the weak spot of Jim Crow, given the failure of states to carry out the “separate but equal” standard mandated by the 1895 Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson.  Houston’s idea was worked into the successful legal strategy used by the plaintiffs in the 1954 case of Brown, wherein the U.S. Supreme struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine. Houston died in 1950, four years before this groundbreaking decision, but he had played a role in nearly every civil rights case before the Supreme Court from 1930 until his death.

These details of Houston’s life are laid out in this page of the NAACP website.  One can also read more about Charles Hamilton Houston and the entire Jim Crow custom in the book From Jim Crow to Civil Rights (Oxford 2004), available in our library collection. Also consider the provocative book The New Jim Crow (The New Press 2010), which asserts that the old Jim Crow as taken a modern shape in the form of mass incarceration, also available in our library.


Indigent Defense

Courtroom 066The Pioneer Press recently featured the work of First Judicial District public defender Lauri Traub in defending Brian Fitch Sr.  Mr. Fitch was convicted earlier this month of first degree murder in the death of police officer Scott Patrick.  He was not a generally popular client, but Traub made clear that her team’s vigorous defense of Fitch was consistent with her belief that “everyone is entitled to representation.”  Fitch was asked by the judge if he had been satisfied with the representation Traub provided, to which he replied ”[f]or sure.”

Our modern public defender system is the child of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright, which held that indigent criminal defendants have a right to legal counsel under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In State v. Ferris, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that a public defender must be appointed if a defendant would experience “substantial hardship” to hire counsel. Minnesota Statute §611.17 requires courts to consider certain factors in determining a defendant’s eligibility for a public defender.  But Rule 5.04 (Minn. R. Crim. P.) states that “[t]he court must not appoint a district public defender if the defendant is financially able to retain private counsel but refuses to do so.” Further, the Minnesota Court of Appeals clarified in the case of State v. Nace that the right to a public defender does not mean the right to one’s choice of such.  For quick reference, the Minnesota House Research Department published a short synopsis of Minnesota’s Public Defender System, explaining who is eligible for this service.

As last weekend’s television debut of fictional lawyer “Jimmy McGill” dramatized, lawyers don’t typically earn much money from public defense cases. (Traub herself waits tables on the side.) At the same time, public defense is a limited and high-demand resource that gets spread painfully thin, perhaps unconstitutionally so. To consider this proposition, see this 2010 evaluation by the Minnesota State Auditor of the state’s public defender system. Here in the law library we also have Chasing Gideon: The Elusive Quest for Poor People’s Justice by Karen Houppert (The New Press 2013).  This book articulately explains why our nationwide system of public defense is in disarray, and asserts that we still haven’t come close to meeting the promise of Gideon.


Judge Stephen L. Maxwell (1921 -2009)

On more than one occasion, visitors to our library have noted that the judge portrait collection only contains portraits of white male judges. And they are correct.  While the portrait collection may be historically accurate for the time period it spans, it fails to reflect the more diverse bench serving the 2nd Judicial District that gradually came to be. It is fitting with Black History Month upon us to remember the first African-American judge to serve our district, even if his likeness doesn’t grace our walls. Indeed, he was the first African American District Court judge for the entire State of Minnesota.

Stephen L. Maxwell was born in 1921. His father, a barber, died when he was nine years old. He was raised by his mother, a social worker, and attended St. Paul Central High School. He put himself through Morehouse College in Atlanta and the St. Paul College of Law (now William Mitchell College of Law) by doing odd jobs along the way. During his schooling he also served in the U.S. Coast Guard as a lieutenant and commander and in the U.S. Navy, eventually earning his law degree in 1953.

He began his legal career in private practice in St. Paul. As legal counsel for the St. Paul NAACP in the 1950s, he won a substantial verdict for two black men who were refused service in a Dakota County bar. In 1959, Maxwell became an assistant Ramsey County attorney. He was a prosecutor in the highly publicized case of T. Eugene Thompson who in 1963 was convicted of arranging to have his wife killed. In 1964, Maxwell became St. Paul City Attorney, which he served until his appointment to the municipal court in 1967. He ran for Congress as a Republican in 1966 and garnered over 46% of the vote. He was appointed to the 2nd Judicial District bench in 1968, where he served nineteen years until he retired in 1987. He died on August 31, 2009.

Judge Maxwell appeared in a Navy ad that ran in Ebony Magazine in 1972

Judge Maxwell appeared in a Navy ad that ran in Ebony Magazine in 1972

Judge Maxwell was remembered as a “tough but fair” judge.    He was featured in an advertisement for the Navy Reserves in the December 1972 issue of Ebony magazine, and predictably he ran a tight ship in presiding over his courtroom.   Active 2nd District Judge Margaret “Peg” Marrinan remembers him as being “proper and timely,” but also possessing a uniquely subtle sense of humor.  More details about Judge Maxwell can be gleaned from his Pioneer Press and Star Tribune obituaries.  If you have favorite memories of Judge Maxwell, please feel free share them with us.



Was your vehicle or other property recently seized by law enforcement as part of an investigation?  You might feel that your car’s impoundment was downright criminal, but getting it back will require civil action on your part.  And it’s not just cars that can be seized.  Firearms are also subject to government seizure, as are recreational vehicles like your snowmobile or boat if they suspected to be tools in the commission of DWIs or fishing/gaming offenses.  Last year brought some changes to Minnesota civil forfeiture law.  In May the Minnesota Legislature passed legislation wherein the government would no longer be allowed to keep property and cash seized in drug cases when there is no criminal conviction.  In August the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in Garcia –Mendoza v. 2003 Chevy Tahoe that the exclusionary rule applied to civil forfeiture as well as criminal search and seizure actions.   Despite these changes, this Minnesota House Research Information Brief from 2010 still provides good information on what Minnesota civil forfeiture law covers.

Unlike you, your property has none of the constitutional rights protected under criminal law, so actions to recover government-seized property have to be brought in civil court.  More often than not, your seized property will be worth less than $15,000, so such recovery action would properly be brought in Conciliation Court.  If you recently had your property seized in Ramsey County, and were served with a Notice of Seizure and Intent to Forfeit as part of a DWI arrest, you can find helpful procedural information at the 2nd Judicial District website.  Demand Claim and other related forms are available at the Minnesota Courts website.   You will also want to read the current Minnesota forfeiture statute (MN Stat. §609.531) for more information.   Also consider coming to our Housing and Conciliation Court clinic for a free lawyer consultation to see where you (and your car) stand.

Despite the recent changes to Minnesota forfeiture law, civil forfeiture remains a controversial government tool.  For example, this recent article from the Institute for Justice presents an investigation into the very usefulness of civil forfeiture as a force for civic good.


Judge Charles Bechhoefer (1864-1932)

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Charles Bechhoefer was born on January 1, 1864 at Woodbury, Pennsylvania.  He graduated from the University of Michigan Law Department in 1985.  He moved to Minnesota shortly thereafter, arriving in St. Paul on July 4th, 1885.  He was admitted to Minnesota practice on July 25, only three weeks after his arrival.  He worked as law clerk in the firm W. H. and John B. Sanborn for the next two years, after which he started his own practice of probate, real estate, and taxation law.  He continued this solo practice until he was appointed Judge of the Ramsey County District Court by Governor Preuss on January 23, 1923.

Bechhoefer married Helen Goldman at Holidaysburg, Pennsylvania on April 28, 1892.  They had two children.  Helen died on October 24, 1917, shortly after which her surviving sister Caroline Goldman came from Pennsylvania and took charge of Bechhoefer’s household.  Judge Bechhoefer married Caroline on November 8, 1924.

The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the final district court order issued by Judge Bechhoefer in the case of In re Estate of Taylor,  222NW 528 (1928), holding that the state could levy an inheritance tax on Minnesota-based state and municipal bonds, even though the deceased lived in New York.  Two years later on appeal, the United States Supreme Court reversed the Minnesota Supreme Court decision, holding in the case of Farmers Loan & Trust Co. v. State of Minnesota, 280 U.S. 204 (1930) that a state may not tax anything beyond the boundaries of its jurisdiction without violating the 14th Amendment (280 U.S. 204).    Farmers Loan & Trust came to be a much-cited case in regards to inheritance taxes and states’ powers of taxation.

On March 10, 1931, Judge Bechhoefer resigned from the bench due to ill health.  He died on January 25, 1932, and was buried at Mt. Zion Cemetery in St. Paul, Minnesota.


The Ramsey County Bar Association, MEMORIAL:  Judge Charles Bechhoefer (1864-1932), THE MINNESOTA LEGAL HISTORY PROJECT;,d.aWw

Judge Bechhoefer Weds, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Nov. 9, 1924


My Way is the Skyway

This skyway sign above 5th Street has since been removed.

This skyway sign above 5th Street has since been removed.

The St. Paul skyway system has generated its own discussion among the downtown community in the last year, particularly after last year’s arrest incident. Debate over what human behavior was acceptable in the skyway system, versus when law enforcement efforts were going too far was predictable. The role of the skyway has generated even more attention lately, what with plummeting temperatures and the new stair access connecting the Metro Green Line Central Station to the skyway. Also noteworthy: The city is facing a lawsuit from last year’s skyway arrest.

Controversy surrounding the regulation of activity in the skyway is nothing new. Back in the early 1990s, the issues of skyway safety and police presence were frequently in the news. Reports of criminal incidents were frequent, as were charges of race-biased policing. Clearly those were stormy times for the skyway system, yet it also played a key role in downtown St. Paul’s preservation, and perhaps its recent renaissance. The now-active St. Paul Athletic Club once faced demolition, but its skyway role likely saved it from the wrecking ball. At one time the project of connecting the historic Union Depot to the skyway system by way of TPT was feared to be a “skyway to nowhere”– hard to imagine now that the Depot is an active and vital transportation hub.

As a publicly owned amenity, the St. Paul skyway is governed by St. Paul Ordinance 140. Some of the prohibited listed acts include (but are not limited to) littering, sitting on floors or steps, and playing audible music. Citizens can keep abreast of St. Paul skyway issues and express their opinions through the Skyway Governance Advisory Committee of the Capitol River Council. This is an advisory body to the City of Saint Paul and the City Council on issues and policies of the downtown Saint Paul skyway system “including but not limited to its design, signage, and hours of operation, in an effort to uphold the skyway system’s purpose to enable safe pedestrian traffic while also contributing to the economic viability and aesthetic and cultural enrichment of the city as a focus of activity in the downtown area.” Meetings are free and open to the public.


IMG_9482The combination of the holidays, the weather, and professional demands are challenging enough for the best of us.   In addition, you may find that personal problems are pushing you dangerously close to your own Coach Yeo meltdown moment.  Let us give credit to the Wild head coach for reminding us that we all have our breaking points (staged or not).  Before you reach yours, consider the options to get a handle on your stress.

Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL) provides “free, confidential peer and professional assistance to Minnesota lawyers, judges, law students, and their immediate family members on any issue that causes stress or distress.”  Their services include up to four free counseling sessions through their counseling partner organization DOR & Associates (DOR).  For more hands-on help, a multi-session workshop “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction” will begin on January 20, 2015.  DOR will also be presenting a stress-management webinar on January 20, with opportunity to “learn to recognize and manage stressful situations, practice relaxation techniques, and understand the benefits of making the mind-body connection.”  These two events are both presented on the front page of the LCL website.


The “I” in DWI


The new year means new beginnings for many, especially with the revised expungement law taking effect this month.  Those who were picked up on a DWI (driving while impaired) over the holidays may be seeking a new start of a different sort.  Courts are starting to recognize that DWI offenders need more from the judicial system than the typical charge-convict-sentence cycle.  Preventing future offenses means getting to the varied and personal root causes behind DWI, specifically, the “I” component.  This is why DWI courts are gaining attention, with their dedication to changing the behavior of alcohol and other drug dependent offenders arrested for DWI, while using the drug court model to address the root cause of impaired driving.   DWI court efforts are led by the National Center for DWI Courts, which is supported by entities including the U.S. Department of Transportation.

DWI rates are decreasing nationwide as a result of several factors.  Recent studies have shown that Minnesota’s specialty courts for chronic drunken drivers reduce recidivism and save taxpayers money.  At the end of 2014, Minnesota had 16 DWI or hybrid DWI/drug courts.  For 2015, DWI courts are expanding into Norman, Polk and Red Lake counties .

The Ramsey County DWI Court is for persons charged with three or more gross misdemeanor DWI offenses.  This specialty court program provides “intensive supervision for persons who are interested in changing their drinking and driving behavior and ending their cycle in the criminal justice system.”   The program, which accommodates approximately 60 participants at a time, involves regular court appearances for at least 24 months, participation in a substance abuse treatment program, and attending a MADD victim-impact panel.



Job ApplicationAfter months of waiting, Minnesota’s new criminal expungement law takes effect January 1, 2015. This new law will give Minnesota judges statutory authority to seal criminal records covering a broader range of circumstances than were previously available. This is significant considering that according to the Council on Crime and Justice, one in four Minnesotans has a criminal record.  MPR posted an article which helps illustrate how a well-meaning person might wind up with a criminal record and why he or she might benefit from expungement as a tool to get back on track.

For Ramsey County residents with prior criminal convictions or arrests, there has never been a better time to attend a local expungement workshop. In addition to the Court-sponsored workshops that take place on the second and fourth Thursday of each month workshops in the Law Library, workshops are also available on the Third Friday of each month at the Rondo Outreach Library.  Starting in February, workshops will also be available the first Friday of each month at the Arlington Hills Library and Community Center.  See this poster for handy reference to all the workshops.

Take a look at the law and see how it has been expanded.  This article from the Bench and Bar of Minnesota helps explain the legal foundations of the new expungement law, as does this practice tip sheet from Volunteer Lawyers Network (VLN).


A Warm Holiday Thank You to Our Volunteers

Volunteer attorney Ryan Peterson greets a clinic visitor

Volunteer attorney Ryan Peterson greets a clinic visitor

It’s no secret that one of our most popular offerings at the Law Library remains our Tuesday afternoon Housing and Conciliation Court clinic.  Our clinic allows Ramsey County residents (and those with potential Housing and Conciliation Court cases in the 2nd Judicial District) the opportunity to speak with an attorney for up to 30 minutes.  The clinic is specifically designed to help with legal matters that include landlord-tenant issues, debt collection and judgments, and unlawful detainer expungements.  In 2013 our clinic helped 437 visitors, with similar or greater projections on track for 2014.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the service of our volunteer attorneys.  Their generous time and attention is what our clinic ultimately depends on.  So we are shouting out a big THANK YOU to them this holiday, plus to all attorneys who give their time and resources in order to bring the access to justice concept that much closer to reality, especially for struggling members of our community.

We look forward to continuing our clinic in 2015.  If you are a practicing attorney interested in volunteering for our clinic, please see this information and contact us.