The Courthouse

This is probably something that most lawyers can relate to. To me, The Courthouse is not just any old court. More specifically, for me it is the Ramsey County Courthouse in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The Ramsey County Courthouse is an 18-story Art Deco building that opened in 1932. The entrance is highlighted by a three-story white onyx Indian God of Peace (now called Vision of Peace). This statute stands 38 feet high and weighs 60 tons. It is set within a dark hallway that has various memorials to Minnesota Soldiers who died in combat in the 20th century. The Vision sits on a revolving base that turns the statue approximately 132 degrees every 2.5 hours. I first saw this magnificent statue as a grade schooler. I remember a field trip to the Courthouse to see this and other sites (likely arranged by my father), but cannot place how old we might have been. I still remember, though, that it had a profound effect on me.

Indian God of Peace (Vision of Peace) towering over the lobby of the Ramsey County Courthouse in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Not only was I a casual visitor to the courthouse as a child, but my sister Pam and I attended various court sessions with my father while in grade school. That was before there was any such thing as a formal “take your kids to work” day. I think that my dad just thought it a good idea to provide a first-hand lesson in civics and the court system to us kids.

I was later a participant in a trial at the courthouse. In the fourth grade I was injured during a school gym class and someone had convinced my father to sue the school for the cost of the extensive dental work caused by the injury. In today’s climate, we probably would have settled for a tidy sum since the “game” we had played was rather rough and dangerous, but in the 1970s, we weren’t quite there yet. Although we lost, I got to experience my first trial. In fact, I was the star of the trial. I was the primary witness in court, as was my friend Toran. I remember being extremely nervous, but the lawyers made it pretty easy. Even the defense lawyer was direct, but kind.

It was many years later that I set foot in the Ramsey County Courthouse again. I think I stopped there to get my marriage license, but it wasn’t until I returned from my stint with the Army and started Law School that I actually spent some time there. As I was leaving the Army, my dad sent a letter to several Judges asking if they needed a law clerk. One of them passed the letter on to Mark Haakenson, the jury manager for the Ramsey County. Mark also ran a program that provided extra or substitute law clerks, called “Bailiff Law Clerks.” The pay was basically minimum wage, but it provided aspiring law students (and select others) insight into the operation of the court system. Mark told my dad to have me stop by when I returned from active duty. I did and was hired on the spot.

My fellow Bailiff Law Clerks were a veritable cast of characters. There were a couple of “elder statesmen” who had already graduated from law school, but could not find a legal job. That was a bit discouraging from the perspective of an aspiring law student, but there were some obvious reasons why they were not hired elsewhere. Although there were both law students and non-students in among us, we were all treated the same. Mark Haakenson and his staff were good to us, but again, the pay and some of the menial tasks, were nothing special. The best part about the job was that it provided some “free” time to study. If we wouldn’t have had homework, we would have been bored silly some days.

Since we spent a lot of free time together, we all got to know each other pretty well. I became very good friends with Tom Kempe and George Perez. We were probably the troublemakers of the group, as we often bounced baseballs, basketballs, and footballs across the cavernous jury room after the prospective jurors had been sent home for the day. I admit that perhaps a few courtrooms still have ball marks on the walls due to our athletic prowess (or lack thereof).

Tom, George and I definitely had fun at work, but we also extended that to our off duty time. We attended ball games together, played basketball together, organized and played on various softball teamsm and were generally great buddies both on and off duty. After our courthouse days, we saw each other occasionally, but we mostly lost touch after I left Minnesota. I still have fond memories of them. For over five years, they were a very big part of my life.

We had other great co-workers. Sharon & Mary Jo, clerks in the Court’s Civil Division, were two of our favorites. They knew the inside of the court system and helped in many ways. Plus, they were just nice, fun people. Court supervisors Mark Haakenson and Mike O’Rourke both made great impact on me, but in very different ways. Mark for his treatment of people and the way he dealt with the egos of jurors, law students, lawyers, and Judges. Mike was a Sergeant Major in the Army Reserve. It was Mike who convinced me to get back into the Army, only this time as a Reservist. Without Mike’s constant prodding and encouragement, I don’t know if I would ever have taken that leap. Needless to say, the Army Reserve became a central part of my life after that time, so I owe a lot to Mike.

I was at the courthouse for over three years. In addition to the friends and colleagues mentioned above, I worked directly for Judges Larry Cohen, Ken Fitzpatrick, and Al Markert. Each provide me inspiration in my life and as a lawyer. They were as different in personality and character than you could imagine. Judge Cohen was a former mayor of St. Paul. He was a liberal Democrat and we got along as well as I have with any boss I’ve ever had. It was different since there is a fairly wide chasm between a law student and a Judge, but he was firm, kind, and always encouraging. He also had an eye for the ladies. I think I was the first male clerk he ever had. He ran a very busy courtroom, but I had fun going to work every day.

Judge Fitzpatrick was the total opposite of Judge Cohen. Where Judge Cohen was outgoing and charismatic, Judge Fitz was reclusive. He would walk through the outer chambers every morning without even saying hello to me or his court reporter. Rather strange. After a trial, Judge Fitz would put a sticky note on the file telling me how to rule on the case. It was up to me to write the Court Order. Several times, the precedent didn’t agree with Fitz’s sticky note. That didn’t matter to him. He told me to make it fit somehow. I didn’t particularly enjoy working for Fitz, but I did learn from him. He demanded a lot from his clerk. Not only did I write his opinions, but I managed his calendar, screened his calls, and kept pesky attorneys and court management personnel away. The only people who received open access were two nuns from the Little Sisters of the Poor who dutifully visited every month. They always left with a check! While not overly social, Fitz was definitely a generous man.

Finally, Judge Markert was perhaps my favorite. Like Fitz, he often had me draft his opinions. He was, though, much more willing to discuss the case and precedent. Judge Markert was what some people might call a gentle giant. He had been a lineman on the Minnesota Gopher football team and was drafted by the Chicago Bears. Unfortunately, he was also drafted by Uncle Sam, so never played professional football. Judge Markert freely admitted that he wasn’t what he’d call the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he made up for it with a excess of common sense and uncommon kindness. He was a Republican, but truly a nonpartisan jurist. More than anything, Judge Markert taught me how to treat people. Treat them well and they will reciprocate. He also knew how to keep me laughing. He had a deep baritone laugh and laughed often. He even made me laugh without saying anything. Often, he would show up after lunch with a box of ice cream sandwiches – and would proceed to eat the entire box! More important than the laughter, though, Judge Markert would back me up any time – and proved it during a debacle when I was taking the bar exam (perhaps a story for another blog!).

After graduation from law school, I became a regular visitor to the Ramsey County Courthouse. I represented many clients and filed numerous documents on site, so for many years it remained a big part of my work life. The climax, though, was a Rotary meeting shortly before I left my law practice in Minnesota and rejoined the Army. This was a gathering that followed my year as President of the Saint Paul Rotary club. It is a club tradition to “roast” their outgoing President. For me, it only made sense to hold it – after hours – at the courthouse. This was a wonderful gala that started in a large meeting room. What followed, though, was hilarious! I was put “on trial” for something that I can’t even remember.

Uh oh. Doesn’t look good for the defendant!
If only I could have kept my defense attorneys sober.
This judge looks mean!

My fellow Rotarians served as judge and jury. Tom Farnham presided from the bench. I was assigned a couple of drunk defense attorney, Doug Bruce and Bob Jones. Rotarians served as the prosecutor, court staff, bailiffs, and jurors. Other Rotarians were in the gallery with various protest signs. As you might expect, I was pronounced guilty. I was led away in prison garb, only to be released to family and a heartfelt thank you from the club. It was quite a fitting way to end my long association with the Ramsey County Courthouse.

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