From national Coleman-Franken spotlight to well-worn Hennepin County courtroom

Judge Denise Reilly
AP Photo/Jim Mone
Judge Denise Reilly raises a question about a disputed ballot during a February session of the Senate recount trial.

“All rise. Court is in session,” law clerk Jennifer Hobbs declared at 8:31 this morning.

A handful of interested parties stood in a dimly lit, well-worn courtroom, complete with a white camera wire dangling from one of its walls.

“The Honorable Denise Reilly presiding.”

From a stage door right, here came the robed jurist, white coffee mug in hand.

Hennepin County District Court Judge Reilly’s work returned to its real-life normalcy this week.

After one hearing Monday, she faced a full day of her regular duties today, listening to lawyers babble on about money owed and alleged fraud committed and, then, to the heart-tugging facts of mothers in prison jumpsuits.

Already far away in time and place
The U.S. Senate recount — over which Reilly presided with two other state court judges—already must have seemed long ago and far away.

The setting surely was.

The St. Paul-based Minnesota Judicial Center’s Courtroom 300, the soundstage for the Norm Coleman-Al Franken election contest seven-week-long drama, is a temple to justice, with marble steps leading to it, polished oak highlighting its grandeur, a judges’ bench that ethereally elevates the rulers in robes and with skylights that shine openness onto a setting of gravity and fairness.

It has, Reilly told MinnPost in an interview, “an aura.”

Not Reilly’s Courtroom 655 of the Hennepin County Government Center, 10 miles to the west of the recount trial venue. Courtroom 655 has all the charm of a bureaucrat’s beige cubicle, with its low ceiling, awful lighting, claustrophobic square footage and unassuming name tag in the front: “Judge D Reilly.”  

The rumbles of the nearby light-rail trains on Fifth Street provide intermittent beat to the proceedings.

Like her colleagues on the three-judge panel who ruled that Coleman hadn’t proven his case to overturn the recount, Reilly took some time off after their April 13 final order; she had been assigned to the election case three months earlier.

Work on her own cases piled up.

Other panel members returning to duties, too
Like Reilly, panel-mate Judge Kurt Marben began hearing cases Monday in Crookston. The third member of the panel, Judge Elizabeth Hayden, hasn’t returned yet to her duties as chief judge of Stearns County court.

Reilly was back in the full swing of it today, a typical Minnesota district court jurist performing typical tasks in cases that are just as important to these parties as her most recent case was to Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell.

But no cameras in this courtroom. No Twittering by journalists monitoring every post-courtroom media scrum by spinmeister lawyers. No glamour.

Indeed, it was as if the legal gods were laughing upon Reilly today, reminding her that not all cases are fascinating. The judge’s hearing this morning had all the pizazz of a 2 a.m. C-SPAN PowerPoint presentation on carbon trading.

“Trusts … taxable gifts … insolvency … 17 million … accounting standards … irreparable harm … terror tactics … the elephant in the living room … a slam dunk.”

Such were the words floating about her courtroom, which sounded more like “blah, blah, blah” after the first half hour or so.

Same dispassionate judicial style
Her stance was familiar to anyone who watched the Coleman-Franken trial. Reilly, as she settled into her chair, immediately told the lawyers she had read all the filings, so there was no need for them to repeat themselves. (They did anyway.) She gazed with intent, although how her mind wasn’t wandering bordered on miraculous. And she stared over her glasses, which slipped down her nose.

It was the matter of Bremer Bank v. S.F.P. Limited Partnership. A motion to dismiss, a motion seeking a temporary injunction and a handful of other motions were being heard.

The lawyer for the bank was dispassionate and focused, a minor-league version of Franken’s laser-like lawyer Kevin Hamilton; no nonsense.

The lawyer for the partnership … well, let’s just say he was no Joe Friedberg. He danced around some damaging facts and the reality that his client, on the face of it, seemed not to have the cash to pay back the $4 million that seemed to be in dispute.

Exactly how the good judge kept her typical straight face was unclear.

“You’ve been going for 25 minutes,” Reilly said, with another matter waiting for her in Courtroom 1156.  “I’ll give you another five minutes.”

Three judge panel
AP Photo/Richard Sennott
Minnesota Judges Kurt Marben, left, Elizabeth Hayden, center, and Denise Reilly confer with recount attorneys David Lillehaug and Joe Friedberg during a March session of the recount trial.

The only time her work on the recount panel came up was when she questioned Bremer’s lawyer, Craig Krummen, for the apparent late filing of a motion.

Quickly, oh-so-politely, Krummen replied: “As your honor knows, the court has been extraordinarily busy doing a Herculean effort in terms of the Senate recount trial. We did have this motion scheduled for January. It’s now April, so we tried to move as quickly as we could.”

Unlike the recount trial, in which every order was so meticulously written and decided by the troika, on this day Reilly ruled from the bench and swiftly set a time for a trial.

“I want this thing to get moving,” she said, as she raced from one court to another.

You would think that like athletes after a World Series or actors after a run on Broadway or candidates after an election, there would be some “artist’s depression” for a judge moving from a national spotlight to a routine civil case.

But, no, Reilly said in an interview in her chambers later, “The election contest trial was really exciting and exhausting, but there hasn’t been a crash. My civil stuff just has been backing up,” … as Krummen so diplomatically noted.

Different world on 11th floor
Five floors up the Government Center elevator is the “Property Drug Court,” or simply PDC to those in the courthouse biz.

Courtroom 1165 has yet another personality. A probation officer has her own desk in the large, lecture-hall like room. Three sheriff’s deputies work the room. A sign outside the courtroom orders all hats off of heads and no sleeping allowed.

A public defender and county attorney stand side by side as defendants are called to face the judge, their numbers hollered out as if they were buying sliced turkey at a deli.

“Calling page 14,” a clerk says, and, more times than not, a young man — of various sizes and colors — in sweatshirt and sneakers approaches for having violated a drug law.

Reilly sat above the fray — a la the “Law & Order” arraignment segment — and listened to every one’s story. A car was stolen. A bad check was written. Probation was violated.

“You qualify for the services of a public defender,” she repeated during the course of her hour and a half there. “Do you want the public defender to represent you?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

To her right was a glass-encased holding pen. There, mostly in their orange prison jumpsuits, was a steady stream of offenders waiting to be released or to have new court dates set.

A woman in orange stood at the microphone behind the glass in the enclosure. She had missed a court date. She had turned herself in the other day on a warrant.

Reilly said to her: “Bail has been ordered at $5,000. Are you able to make bail?”

The woman, in her 20s, shook her head no.

The public defender explained the skipped court date was a result of the woman being in Las Vegas. She was there giving birth to her fifth child.

Reilly looked at the report in front of her. It was not about absentee ballots. It was not about which political party would control the U.S. Senate.

“I’m going to conditionally release you,” Reilly said to the woman in the orange in the cell in trouble. “Make sure you make all of your court appearances.”

Later, in her chambers, back on the sixth floor, Reilly said of the PDC, “I really enjoy that courtroom. I like the attorneys. I like the court staff.”

But it’s sad, isn’t it?

“It is,” said the former assistant U.S. attorney. “We see people stealing because they’re feeding a drug habit.”

She paused. The election contest for which she, Marben and Hayden will long be remembered must have crossed her mind.

“It’s very far removed from what we did in St. Paul,” Judge Reilly said.

Jay Weiner can be reached at jweiner [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Michael Kimmitt on 04/29/2009 - 12:12 pm.

    Just got forwarded here from dKos. Great article.

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