Reform It. Change It. Pass It On.

I am a judge. As a judge many of my days are spent in the courtroom. I have the honor of watching some of the best lawyering and creativity on a daily basis. Every day, I have the pleasure of seeing litigants, lawyers, and others come into the courtroom. When the Hennepin Lawyer committee planned this issue of the magazine, we were excited about exploring the various aspects of the courtroom experience. We sought out authors in an attempt to paint a full picture of the courtroom experience, and provide practice tips. Between that initial meeting and this edition being brought to you we have had a significant shift in our daily lives. First, we came face to face with a global pandemic which fundamentally altered every aspect of our lives including the courtroom experience.

This courtroom issue of the Hennepin Lawyer starts with a Zoom interview with new Hennepin County District Court Chief Judge Toddrick Barnette. Judge Barnette shares his vision for the Hennepin County Court and his journey to becoming the first person of color to be chief judge of a district court in Minnesota. Referee Jason Hutchinson writes on remote hearing and how to adapt to our new normal. This article provides practice pointers from a judicial officer’s perspective and wrestles with the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed how courts do business. Judge Kevin Burke discusses cameras in the courtroom and how we can foster openness and transparency. Rayeed Ibtesam provides practice pointers for attorneys litigating cases against self-represented litigants. Sheri Stewart shares her experience in the alternative dispute resolution (ADR) process. Ms. Stewart examines and provides valuable insight for attorneys practicing in this process. Finally, Christine Funk writes about the use of forensics in the courtroom.

I started this article with the statement that I am a judge, however to add more context to that statement, I am a black judge. My experience as a black man in America has shaped my world view and formed me into who I am. We do not live in a vacuum. We cannot separate the courtroom experience from lived experiences. I am sure that if you are reading this magazine you have probably seen the multiple videos of George Floyd’s murder. I do not see the need to rehash the trauma of the visual of seeing another unarmed African American’s life snatched prematurely. The tragedy elicited outrage, anger, and profound sadness for many, including myself. This is an all too familiar feeling. Rodney King, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Walter Scott, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, Sandra Bland, Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, and many others remind us that not everyone’s experience in the justice system, from the police stop to the court sentencing, has been unbiased and fair.
America has a history of systematic and pervasive racism. We do not know how to talk about race, and even worse, we have all too often perpetuated the racism through our inaction. Race is ever-present in the justice system and the courtroom. Both explicit and implicit bias colors the laws legislatures create, prosecutors enforce, defense attorneys defend, the decisions that judges make, and the verdicts jurors reach. The recent events tell us one simple truth: people are sick and tired of being sick and tired. People are fed up, and are not ok with excuses and inaction.

What does this have to do with the courtroom edition of the Hennepin Lawyer? In the spring of 1978, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall gave the commencement address to the University of Virginia. He told the graduates, “Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.” This commitment to speak up and act out is a commitment that is missing in the legal system and in the courtroom. My simple charge to the readers of this magazine: speak out! This is your courtroom, your justice system. Reform it. Change it. Pass it on.

These articles task you to think about the issues you face in the courtroom. The recent events in our community challenge you to think about what you can do to address the biggest challenge facing our system, truly providing equal justice for all. Whether you are a partner or associate at a large law firm, a small or solo practitioner, a legal aid attorney, a prosecutor, a public defender or defense attorney, or in a corporate setting, this is your issue, it is all of our issue. Enjoy these articles and … Black Lives Matter.

Judge JaPaul Harris

Judge JaPaul J. Harris was appointed to the Second Judicial District by Gov. Mark Dayton in June 2018. He previously served as a judicial referee in Hennepin County from 2012 to 2018. Judge Harris serves as a member of the Minnesota Supreme Court Committee for Equality and Justice, where he serves as the chair of the education committee. In addition to his bar activity, Harris coaches youth sports at Jimmy Lee recreation center in Saint Paul.