An Interview with Chief Judge Toddrick S. Barnette

Judge-Barnette-x200Judge Toddrick S. Barnette was elected chief judge of Hennepin County District Court in May. His term began on July 1, 2020. He is the first chief judge of color in Minnesota. Judge Barnette was appointed to the Hennepin County bench in 2006, and previously served as assistant chief judge. 

This interview took place on May 29th, four days after the death of George Floyd in South Minneapolis and in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was conducted via Zoom with THL Committee Chair Ayah Helmy, Issue Editor Judge JaPaul Harris, and Managing Editor Nick Hansen.  It has been edited for length and clarity. 

Can you describe the role of the Chief Judge?

I would say the first order of business that I had to do was to select who are going to be the presiding judges in our divisions—who is going to be the presiding judge and the assistant presiding judge in family court, civil, criminal, juvenile. Probate/mental health is a little bit different because that is what we call one of our specialty courts.

I also have the duties to appoint the judges who are going to be the chairs of our standing committees. So we have the budget, judicial education, equal justice committee, by-laws, and facilities committee, and I have to appoint the chairs there. I can also determine what division people are in. Of course, I'll have to deal with any issues or complaints that might come up for our branch. I'll also sit on the statewide judicial council and be a representative for our district there. 

Do you have the autonomy to determine what your role is going to look like versus fitting within a certain box based on what your predecessors have done?

I think where I’ll probably be different than some of the other chief judges for Hennepin County is that I’ll be more visible with our staff because I tend to walk around the buildings. I’ll probably be more visible out doing other things in the community, beyond the “Hey, can you talk at this Rotary Club?” I think it will be important for me to be available to some of the communities that are affected by a lot of what we do in the courthouse. We see a lot folks who are disadvantaged. They have mistrust of the system. And I think it’s going to be important for me, when they invite me to come out, that I go, even if it’s in a situation where they’re not particularly fond of seeing judges. It’s important that we be there and tell them what our roles are and what we do. 

Given what you just said, and the context of where we are now, that’s probably going to be more important than ever, bridging that gap between the judiciary and the public or the community. What’s your vision for making that happen?

There’s a couple of things that I have in mind. And there’s a couple of judges that I talked to.

I want one of the judges to be heavily involved with bringing diversity to our organizations. I want to be able to increase the diversity of our staff and that’s the court staff, that’s the judicial staff, and the judges. And so I feel like in order to do that, we’re going to have to do stuff that a lot of people don’t like. And that is to really look at the data and look at where are we? In Hennepin County if you said, “Judge, have you increased the diversity of your organization? Or how has it increased over the last five years?” I would have to tell you, I don’t know! Because nobody really talks about the numbers. Nobody really talks about the data. 

I want measurable goals for us. I don’t want to say oh, we want diversity, we want to increase diversity and then not know if we’ve done it. That’s going to be important. I want to know that at the end of the day, if we’ve only increased it two percent, I want to know that we tried 150 percent. Also, a lot of times we focus on diversity for the judges and we’re not focusing on enough diversity for our staff. People walk into the courthouse and they need to see people that look like them. It’s so important that we hire more people. And the only way we’re going to do that is if we go out into high schools, into the communities, and do that.

I have another judge who I want to be more of a liaison with all the bar associations. I want a judge that can really be focusing on, “Hey, this is what Hennepin County is doing in this area" and really focus in with the bar and tell them this is what we are doing.

And just so that the bar associations would know, you can get in touch with Judge Barnette, but you can [also] talk to this judge who is a liaison and can work with you. And that judge can be responsible and helpful in diversity and getting that message to the bar associations. Where the other judge is working to get our message out in the community.

We have our typical institutional issues that we’ve always had, but now we have extra layers of complexity that you are dealing with as chief judge, with the coronavirus pandemic and the George Floyd killing. You have to deal with both the PR piece of that and the logistics of how things are going to move forward. What have you been doing to address that from a logistical point of view?

The virus has affected everything that we do. The first thing we have to provide is a healthy and safe environment for our staff and for all the people that enter the courthouse. It’s really contrary to having an open judicial system. Now we’re saying, stop for a minute. You have to wear a mask before you come in here. We have to have social distancing from the time you walk into this building all the way to the courtroom.  We have to do social distancing in the court room.

Yesterday, I was with Hennepin County workplace safety. We were in the courtroom and we had them looking at our set up for jury trial. We have to provide social distancing for the jury, and everyone in the courtroom. It’s just not the way it used to be. They were in there giving us helpful suggestions and it’s all based on health. It has nothing to do with the law. It’s a different focus for us. Here’s hand sanitizer. How many do you need? Where do you need to put them? You need to have disinfectant wipes. Things as far as the microphone. The microphone has a foam cover on it. You can’t wipe the foam cover because then you’ll destroy it. It’s just all these different things that we do. 

That’s just the health part of the building. We’ve had to work with our justice partners, with the Sheriff’s Office, the Minneapolis prosecutors, the Hennepin County prosecutors. We were in a position back when this first started in March where we had about 850 people in our jail. In three weeks, with the help of our justice partners, we reduced that to about 450-500 people. It was important that the jail had capacity to spread people out because we knew that people were going to come in. We had to understand what they were doing so they could do all the proper health screenings and have space if there was an outbreak in the jail. We had to have a system for them to know how to trace it. They work on all that stuff, but we all had to work together on this. Who’s going to be contacted? For instance, the jail was really good, they thought they had someone who might have been positive. They even went back and looked at all the video where that person was and who came in contact with them. Stuff we never would have done before, or stuff we never had to do before. The virus has changed that. if we were able to reduce the jail from 850 people down to 450-500 people in three weeks, who really needed to be in our jails? We’ve done some really good things to keep some low-level offenders out of our jail, so now it’s like, “How are we able to do that?” That’s because we were pressured to. It’s going to be interesting to see what we do after this is over and can we maintain or reduce a number of people in the jail. I think that will be important coming out of this COVID-19 pandemic.

George Floyd was part of your question. That is happening right now, and it just happened Monday, so I think part of what we're going to see after all this—I hope—is some changes in the way that people are treated when they encounter the police. I would think for most people their encounters with police officers are not negative, but in certain neighborhoods they are negative and the frequency of those encounters are just too many. Every time one of these things happen, there’s always hope and I think back to ‘91 when Rodney King was beaten. I’ll never forget when my grandmother and I were talking about it. I was up here in law school and we’re talking about the video.

She goes, “We finally got them.”—talking about the police on video. I was thinking about this. It was in 1991. How many times have we seen these instances of police brutality on video and nothing’s happened? We have to have hope because if we don’t have hope, there’s just too much despair for us to think about. It’s tough. It’s really tough. I hope some really good things happen from this. There’s already been criminal justice reform happening and initiatives. Maybe this will push some of those through faster. We’ll have to see where we end up. I just hope we’re not back in the same place, because we’ve seen this too many times.

You’ve talked a lot about increasing the diversity of the workforce. One of the good things about your appointment amongst a number of things is you are the first person of color to be a chief of a district court in Minnesota. When you hear that, what do you think? What goes through your mind? What do you think that means to others who aspire to be where you are?

That’s a lot. I’ll try to answer all those questions. I knew four years ago that I would run. I knew that’s one of the reasons I wanted to be an assistant chief judge. I knew that’s something that I wanted to do. But when you get elected, especially if you don’t have anyone challenging you, after the vote you just feel a tremendous amount of responsibility from your colleagues that they trust you and that they support you. From being a person of color, you feel a tremendous amount of responsibility and obligation to your community. I did not know that I was the first person of color to be a chief judge at the district court level until Judge [Angela] Willms contacted me.

It’s one part of being thrilled and happy and all those things, and then there’s that other part of you that feels disappointed because it’s 2020 and you’re in Hennepin County. It’s the most diverse county in the state of Minnesota. You think, how can this not happen? There are so many other judges of color that have come through Hennepin County and have deserved the honor of being chief judge. 

It’s kind of emotional to think about it. It’s that part where you know that there’s a lot of eyes on you. And there’s a lot of people wanting you to succeed. I was really surprised to see some of the emails and texts that I received from people just wishing me well. I sent out an email to all the judges after I was elected and I said that I was happy and I was nervous and I got a response from about five or so judges saying, “Don’t be nervous. We’re going to support you.” Those things are great. 

The hope part makes me understand the obligation that I have. This obligation—that I don’t think my white colleagues come with— is that when you’re a person of color and you get to a position like this, you know that there are people who expect a lot from you. And you know that they want you to succeed. And you also know that you are going to be a role model for other people. It’s that part where you go, “Please, I do not want to screw this up.” I know I’m going to make mistakes. That’s just human. It’s just that part of you that goes, “I just want to do a good job. I really want to succeed in this.” I want to be able to know that the majority of the bench knows that I am going to work hard for them and represent them very well. That the 500-plus employees know that I am going to make sure that their interests are taken to heart and that I am going to work hard for them. And then it’s the community expectations, I want to make sure I rise to that occasion and that I represent them well. It can be overwhelming. 

My son did this wonderful poster where he took and put down African-American men who were the first. He did it through history and then he put me at the end of it. So that was fantastic. The only thing from that that was disappointing in the poster was that he had a lot of the dad sayings on there. Things that I say quite often like, “Hey, did you get my text?” or “Hey this is a great opportunity for you!” ... There’s parts that are very personal when you think of a legacy and what you are leaving and how other people view you. Having a son and a daughter just feeling like you’re representing them very well, too.

Talking about legacy, picture that you’re retired now and the Hennepin Lawyer is writing an article about the chiefship of Judge Barnette. What would you want that article to say in terms of what your legacy was during your time leading the bench? 

I think what I would like to leave the bench with as a legacy would be that the judiciary in Hennepin County is better than it was when I started. This is what I mean by that. When someone walks into that courthouse, they feel more welcomed than they did before. I think some people walk in there and they walk in with distrust. We can’t stop the distrust. Sometimes we’re not responsible for the distrust. But if they walk into the courthouse and they go, you know what, I know when I walk in here I will be respected and I know that whether I’m a spectator or whether I’m a defendant or I’m a victim or whatever, that when I’m in that courthouse, I’m going to be respected and I’m going to be treated fairly. That would be important to me.

What are some or personal things about you that the legal community would want to know?

As embarrassing as that is, one of the things they wouldn’t know is that I like playing Panda Pop, which my daughter introduced me to a year ago and now regrets. There are parts in the game where you are on a timer, and she’ll ask me something, and I’ll say, “I have two minutes left, it will have to wait.” 

One of the things lately with the pandemic that’s just been great, if there is any silver lining through it all, is the amount of time that now I’ve had with my family. One of the thing that’s happened before the pandemic, I have two teenagers, one is 17 and one is 15. My daughter, the oldest one, plays soccer. [My son] plays basketball. I can leave the house in the morning and come home and they’re not here. And I won’t see them till the next morning just because my daughter’s practice might not get done until 10 p.m. I’m asleep, she’s old enough to take care of herself when she comes into the house. I might see her the next day. But the pandemic has forced us to be together, good or bad for them. It’s that family time that I felt like I used to have when I grew up.