Tough Cases

Tough Cases: Judges Tell the Stories of Some of the Hardest Decisions They’ve Ever Made, published in September 2018, features essays from U.S. judges who describe the cases that were difficult for them to decide.  Two Ramsey Court District Court Judges contributed chapters to this book, and they were the featured speakers at the CLE hosted by the Law Library and the Ramsey County Bar Association on September 16.

Judge Bohr at the CLE.

Judge Bohr discussing the chapter she contributed to Tough Cases.


In Judge Gail Bohr’s chapter, “A Judge’s Hidden Struggle: Overcoming Judicial Culture” she writes about the difficulties she had as a judge in deciding a custody case.  When asked why she chose this case, she responded,

Family law custody cases in the absence of agreement are difficult because they are high conflict cases, and the judge has to decide who will be the primary custodian and what the parenting time schedule for the child will be, among other things.  Here, the parents did have an agreement, but the 18 month old baby would bear the brunt of that agreement, moving every day from one parent to the other.  Could I, as the decision-maker, over-ride their agreement in deciding the child’s best interests?

While she was deciding this case, her many years of experience as a social worker contributed towards her uncertainty about the custody agreement created by the parents.  Her instincts said that the equitable but unwieldy parenting plan was not in the best interest of the child, though the amicable solution would avoid a trial.  As it happened, life intervened, and the child was placed with her grandparents when both parents were unable to take on parental responsibilities of raising an infant.  Because of this case, Judge Bohr concluded that she could not ignore her life experiences when rendering a decision – and in fact, she needed to rely on those experiences to make the best possible decisions.

But for a completely different kind of case, look no further than the chapter penned by Judge Edward Wilson, who wrote about his experiences serving in Kosovo as part of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).  Judge Wilson, along with other international judges, was there to establish a new, workable justice system in Kosovo to fill the vacuum left by the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic and end of Serbian totalitarian rule.

Judge Wilson

Judge Wilson talking about his time as a member of UNMIK.

It was a difficult environment to work in, as there was deep mistrust and hatred on both sides. Because of the enmity and distrust, there was no expectation that trials would be fair, or that the attorneys would be prepared to defend their clients. While UNMIK tried to set up a structure to provide fair hearings, it was hard to overcome the intense antagonism rooted in generations of conflict between the Kosovars and Serbs. Because of this enmity, the local lay people who served as judges on the panels could not be impartial in rendering decisions or determining appropriate punishment.

Although the nascent legal system that he worked with in Kosovo was quite different from the established court system here in Minnesota, Judge Wilson feels that the work he and the other international judges did had a lasting impact on the legal culture of Kosovo. Personally, he enjoyed the experience and learned so much working with other judges from around the world. For anyone who has the opportunity to serve on an international, he strongly encourages you to try it out. Learn as much as you can about the region before you go, keep an open mind, and be prepared to engage with the people and their culture.

While the details and situations that made these cases “tough” for the judges were vastly different, Judge Bohr does see a common thread: “The similarities I see are not so much in the subject matter but in the judges’ inner turmoil as they struggle with the decisions they must make. The book really exposes the humanity of judges as we struggle to arrive at a just and fair decision.”

If you missed their presentation at the Ramsey County Law Library, you will have the chance to see them again.  They will be presenting at a CLE program hosted by the Minnesota State Law Library on November 5 at 1:00 p.m. at the Minnesota Judicial Center, room 230.



What goes up, must come down.

If you have ever been to the Ramsey County Law Library, then you know that a striking feature is the tall windows that look over the Mississippi on one side, and downtown St. Paul on the other.  The tall windows accentuates the open, airy feeling to the law library, with two-story high ceilings in the main reading rooms.  But have you even wondered how the some of the light fixtures and ceiling work is maintained?  Recently, building mechanics Mike Nelson and Jon Dibb were called up to replace some burned out bulbs and a missing ceiling tile.  Here is how they did it.

To replace the missing ceiling tile, Jon and Mike used a scissor lift to reach to ceiling.  Some of the walkways were partially blocked.  Luckily it was a slow morning in the law library, as they had to anchor the lift so it wouldn’t tip over.

Using scissor lift in the law library

Once the lift was secure, the guys could use it to quickly zip up to the ceiling to replace tiles and burnt out bulbs.  The lift is pretty portable, and can be easily moved throughout the library.


The view of the law library from this tall perch is spectacular.


You can get a close-up view of the judicial portraits, too.


Images of judicial portraits of Judges John Willis, Richard Walsh, and Levi Vilas.

An up close and personal look at Judge John Willey Willis and Judge Richard Ambrose Walsh.

For tight areas where it isn’t possible to fit the lift, the guys change the bulbs using a ladder and a lightbulb changer.   This task can get a little tiring considering the law library has ceilings that are 2 and a half stories tall!  The next challenge will be to figure out how to change the bulbs in the chandeliers.  Stay tuned!



Addicted Lawyer

The Addicted Lawyer by Brian Cuban offers a personal expose about one attorney’s struggles with addiction.  Cuban describes the “secret life of Brian” which prevailed for too many years and prevented him from seeking help for his drinking/drug problems.  At a recent Ramsey County Bar CLE book talk on Cuban’s story, David Schultz (Hamline U. Professor of Political Science and U of M Professor of Law) led a   discussion about causes for addiction among lawyers.  He also remarked that the younger generation of lawyers is much smarter than their elder colleagues because they seek help.

This book explains what addiction looks like in the legal profession with its many stressors, causing lawyers to experience higher levels of anxiety, depression and problem drinking than in the general population.  In addition to Cuban’s excellent book, recent resources include the following:

  1. Cuban’s book references a landmark study that examined the high incidence of addiction among attorneys,   The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys  Krill, Patrick R. JD, LLM; Johnson, Ryan MA; Albert, Linda MSSW), Journal of Addiction Medicine: January/February 2016 – Volume 10 – Issue 1 – p 46–52.  This study was conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs; it confirmed “a substantial level of behavioral health problems among attorneys and revealed cause for great public concern.” (p. viii)
  2. The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change (2017) is the result of a study by the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being.  It found that between 21 and 36 percent of attorneys qualify as problem drinkers.  The study concluded that collectively, small steps can lead to transformative change, especially in a demanding profession.  It also focuses on ways to facilitate, destigmatize, and encourage help-seeking behaviors.
  3. At the highest level, Minnesota’s legal community has provided a response to the addiction problem among attorneys with the 2019 “Call to Action” summit hosted by the Minnesota Supreme Court. The summit presented plans for various legal entities—In-House Counsel, Large Law Firms, Public Lawyers, and Solo and Small Firms.
  4. For immediate assistance or for a confidential discussion about substance abuse and/or mental health concerns, Minnesota is fortunate to have Lawyers Concern for Lawyers (LCL).  They can be reached at 651-646-5590 or 1-866-525-6466.

At the conclusion of the CLE/talk about Cuban’s book, one young attorney shared with the group his struggles with addiction. He highlighted the fact that he was able to reach out to others in his firm with very positive results. The attorney continued in his job, has achieved sobriety, and is thankful for the ongoing support the firm provides.

The Addicted Lawyer is available for loan from the Ramsey County Law Library.


Justice Wilhelmina M. Wright

Justice Wilhelmina M. Wright

As the nation celebrates Women’s History Month, it is only natural to look locally to our own leaders, and see many examples of leadership and integrity. One such woman who exemplifies fairness and respect is Judge Wilhelmina Wright of the Federal District of Minnesota.

For those who aren’t familiar with this incredible woman, Judge Wright started her judicial career as a Ramsey County District Court Judge, appointed by Governor Jesse Ventura. Two years later, she was elevated to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, and then in 2012, was selected to become a Minnesota Supreme Court Justice. Four years later when she was nominated to the federal bench, her appointment was remarkable for several reasons: She was the state’s first female African-American justice, and she was the only jurist in state history to have served as a state district court judge, appellate court judge and state Supreme Court Justice. And in a time when judicial confirmations are long and messy, her process was very short. From the time she was nominated by President Obama to the final vote in the Senate, it only took 171 days.

Judge Wright’s personal conviction regarding work ethic, sound judgment, and dedication to public service is reflected in her years devoted to serving the public. She embraces these qualities, and has a deep respect for the law, the courts, and all participants in the judicial system. In fact, she has said that, “Fairness, impartiality, respect for the rule of law, and respect for all litigants are fundamental requirements for a judge… Indeed, I have no agenda as a judge other than these values. In my nearly 15 years of service as a Justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court and as a Judge on the Minnesota Court of Appeals and the Ramsey County District Court, these values have been my lodestar, and I give no consideration to whether I agree or disagree with a party.”

To achieve this level of fairness in the Courts, she has said numerous times that diversity enriches the practice of law, and is an integral part of the judicial system. As she said in written remarks to Senator David Vitter during her confirmation hearing process,

In light of the number of highly qualified women lawyers and lawyers of color who are learned in the law and have the ethical and moral fitness to serve as a judge, I believe it would undermine the public’s trust and confidence in the judiciary if there were no judges who are women or judges of color.

We are proud that this learned and honorable judge got her start in Ramsey County.


Scales of JusticeAs we appreciate the historical significance of the Fourteenth Amendment throughout May, we can consider two lesser-known figures.  This is first the story of a man named John born in Kentucky in 1833 to a slaveholding family. His father was a loyal Whig political leader and lawyer, who served both in Congress and as Kentucky’s attorney general. The father wished the same political stature for his sons, and named this particular son for his favorite Supreme Court justice. This son indeed followed in his father’s footsteps, even attending law school before it was standard to a legal career. It wasn’t long thereafter that he himself was elected attorney general of Kentucky. Although John strongly supported efforts to keep Kentucky in the Unionleading up to the Civil War, he was staunchly opposed to the Emancipation Proclamation. But since the Proclamation only applied to rebel states and not Kentucky, he continued to be responsible for his family’s slaves after his father’s death. His pro-Union, pro-slavery position was politically precarious, and he lost his bid for the US Senate in 1867, as well as his bid to remain attorney general of Kentucky.

John retreated from politics into his law practice, but he was quietly undergoing a philospical metamorphosis. Specifically, he began championing ideas of racial equality which he had previously scorned.  Now affiliating himself with the Republican party, he soon embraced both the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.  His passionate campaign speeches helped bring about the election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, which led to his appointment by President Hayes to the Supreme Court in 1877. Thus began the epic high court career of John Marshall Harlan, with his reputation as the Court’s “great dissenter.” His famous dissents included the lone ones in both the Civil Rights Cases (1883) and Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896). We may see his opinions as heroic in our age, and indeed, his Plessy dissent was later regarded by a young Thurgood Marshall as his “bible” as he argued the case that led to the historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision.  But Harlan was considered by his peers and contemporaries a contrary and eccentric  justice.

John Marshall Harlan’s dramatic political turnabout may be cause for speculation, but this Smithsonian article presents an interesting theory. John grew up in the presence of a “light-skinned, blue-eyed” slave named Robert, who was believed to be John’s half-brother. Indeed, John’s father treated Robert as his son, which he likely was. Robert grew up to have a keen business sense, operating both a barbershop and a grocery store in the 1840’s. The proceeds of these ventures allowed him to buy his own freedom when he was thirty-two. Robert traveled from place to place after the war, amassing a fortune in real estate and other ventures. He also became involved in Republican politics, and President Chester A. Arthur appointed him to the U.S. Treasury as a special agent. In 1886 he was elected a state representative. He and John stayed in contact throughout his life. It’s plausible that Robert’s quiet but dramatic success may have inspired John’s evolution into an early champion of racial equality. Robert James Harlan died one year after the Plessy decision. Justice John Marshall Harlan remained on the Supreme Court until his death in 1911.


Courtroom 055Women’s History Month is drawing to an end, and besides celebrating women’s establishment as judges, we should also remember that women serving as jurors was not always a given. Minnesota eliminated all legislative gender qualification from jury service in 1921, making it one of eight states passing female juror legislation following ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. (A few states had allowed women jurors before the passage of women’s suffrage, but most did not.) On this issue, Minnesota was on the slightly earlier side of progress.  At the extremes, Utah allowed for limited female jury service in 1898. Mississippi, on the other hand, did not allow women on juries until 1968, not coincidentally the same year that Congress passed the Federal Jury Selection Act, prohibiting discrimination in jury service on basis of gender. This article from the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library offers even more interesting details behind our state’s history of including women on juries.

Prior to women’s suffrage, women were routinely excluded from juries. The common arguments of the day against women jurors included the predictable; namely that women should not have to be exposed to the seamy details of trials, that taking women away from their children would be detrimental to families, and that women might be too sympathetic to the criminally charged to convict them. In 1879, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld state laws that completely excluded women from jury service.  (Strauder v. West Virginia 100 US 303) As recently as 1961 the U.S. Supreme Court would still uphold a Florida statute that required women to register with the clerk of court if they wished to be included in jury lists (Hoyt v. Florida 368 U.S. 57). In Hoyt, a wife was convicted of the murder of her husband by a jury composed of 12 men, due to a Florida statute that only allowed women for jury service  if previously registered with the clerk of the circuit court indicating a desire to so serve. The Supreme Court reversed this course in 1975 with Taylor v. Louisiana (419 U.S. 522). Mr. Taylor had been convicted of aggravated kidnapping by an all-male jury chosen from an all-male panel. Louisiana law was similar to Florida’s, in that women could not be seated as a jurors without previously submitting a written request indicating a desire to serve. This time the Court held that women as a class could not be excluded from jury service or given automatic exemptions based solely on sex. The women-have-family-duties argument lingered, but in 1979, the Supreme Court overturned an automatic jury service exemption for women (but not men) who requested one, while indicating that a gender-neutral child care exemption would be permissible. (Duren v. Missouri 439 U.S. 357) Recall from a couple years back that that jury in the George Zimmerman trial made headlines for being all-female. This was in fact rather noteworthy considering that Florida (and most of the South) had been rather slow in establishing women on their juries.

The behavior of jurors as it relates to their gender (or race, age, income, etc.) has long been a much-studied subject. If you are an attorney and would like to select the best jury for your upcoming trial, consider these books:

  • Scientific Jury Selection by Joel D. Lieberman and Bruce D. Sales (APA 2007)
  • Blue’s Guide to Jury Selection by Lisa Blue and Robert Hirschhorn (Atla Press 2004)
  • Mastering Voir Dire and Jury Selection by Jeffrey T. Frederick (ABA 2011)
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Join us for the free CLE, For Your Peace of Mind: No Cost Legal Research/Net Security Tips, on Thursday, May 31 at 3:30 p.m.  The program will give a concise review of Fastcase, which is free with an MSBA membership, and Google Scholar.  It will also highlight tips for securing your computer and online communications from various online threats.

We will be giving a tour of the Law Library at 3:00 p.m., so make sure to arrive early.

For more information and how to register see the brochure.


RCLL is Now on Facebook

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