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Judge's View: Community court connections

From Dale Harris

Sixth Judicial District Judge

If you have driven through Hermantown recently, you may have noticed orange ribbons hanging from a lot of mailboxes. The ribbons are a show of support for a young man who was recently diagnosed with leukemia. In a small community, good or bad news travels fast and everyone gets involved. It's one of the reasons I choose to live in Northeastern Minnesota: we try to look out for each other.

That sense of community applies to the court system as well. Chances are you all know someone who works in the courthouse. Whether that connection is an attorney, law enforcement, probation officer, social worker or a court clerk, there will likely be at least one friendly face when you come into the building. Even in the "big city" of Duluth, it is rare that I don't know at least one person on a jury panel. You would never need all six degrees of separation to connect two seemingly random people in town.

Hopefully, that personal connection makes this place a little less imposing. The business of the courts is pretty serious much of the time, but it's your friends and neighbors who carry it out. Within the building, those relationships can help us cut through some of the bureaucracy and look for solutions. Sometimes, meeting up with one colleague for lunch can accomplish more than a dozen meetings with strangers. It's an advantage I suspect our counterparts in Hennepin and Ramsey counties envy.

There is a downside, of course. Judges have to ensure there are no conflicts of interest, such as if a friend, relative or former client has a case before the court. The smaller the town, the more frequently those things occur. Every judge has to recuse himself or herself from a case several times per year. But in a way, the more casual acquaintances that don't require recusal are even trickier. In my four years as a judge, for example, I have had appear before me a couple of my kindergarten classmates, a former neighbor, a friend's ex-wife and a "roadie" for my old garage band. There have been people I know from church, people I know through my kids and people who work at places I patronize. Those cases can be awkward for everyone involved.

However, when I ask those people if they would prefer I find a different judge to hear their case, they almost always decline. People don't want the justice system to be a bunch of nameless, faceless strangers and they want to know that those of us working within that system see them as more than just a file number, even if going to court means they're having a very bad day. In the end, we all want to move cases along efficiently without losing that human contact that makes us a community. We really are all in this together.

And keep fighting, Cade. Those orange ribbons mean we are all with you.

Judge Harris is a judge in the Sixth Judicial District, working out of the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth. He was born in Two Harbors. He and his wife Barbara now live in Hermantown with their four children.