New to the Bench: Judge Maximillia Utley

Why did you want to become a judge?

I wanted to be a judge in Hennepin County because it is how I believe I can best2103-Utley serve my community. Hennepin County is where I grew up; it is my home and my community. I was born and raised in Minneapolis and it is where I still live now with my family. Even though I was practicing in Hennepin County District Court as a prosecutor for several years prior to my judgeship, I did not feel like I was able to reach and serve my whole community. I wanted to do more and be more for the people of Hennepin County. I see joining the bench as a way for me to be a bridge between my community and the justice system.

During my career before joining the bench, I had the opportunity to work in courtrooms on an almost daily basis for over 11 years. That experience gave me not only a familiarity with the laws, rules, and statutes that govern the court, but it also gave me an important perspective, particularly after working in juvenile court, which focuses on rehabilitation. I believe in the rule of law and protecting public safety, while also believing strongly in rehabilitation and redemption. I appreciate the need to look at cases holistically, to see the people behind the cases and to hear the perspectives, stories, and truths of the litigants in a courtroom. I also appreciate the need to hear all interested parties in a courtroom: the victims, impacted community members, and attorneys associated with each case.

I believe my personal and professional background gives me the ability to provide a safe space for all of those voices to be heard. Being a bridge between those voices and the justice system is how I believe I can best serve the people of Hennepin County. It is truly an honor to be a Hennepin County District Court judge.

What was your career path before becoming a judge?

Prior to becoming a district court judge, I worked as an assistant county attorney at the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office. While there, I worked in each criminal division. I prosecuted white collar crimes in the Special Litigation Division, felony drug offenses in the Community Prosecution Division, violent felony offenses in the Adult Prosecution Division and juvenile delinquency crimes in the Juvenile Prosecution Division. I was also a senior assistant county attorney in the Juvenile Prosecution Division where I supervised several attorneys and specialty assignments. Before joining the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, I was a judicial clerk on the Minnesota Court of Appeals for Judges Thomas Kalitowski (retired) and Heidi Schellhas (retired).

What has it been like being onboarded as a judge during the COVID-19 pandemic?

It has been interesting. Thankfully, I was already practicing regularly in Hennepin County District Court prior to my onboarding as a judge, so I was aware of the remote hearing changes that had been made during the pandemic. However, handling the court calendars from this side of the bench is an entirely different ballgame. A remote calendar requires a lot of coordination with court reporters, the attorneys, the litigants, interpreters if they are needed, and the court clerks. The court clerks really run the show behind the scenes and they get a good amount of training regarding Zoom and how to run the technology effectively.

Aside from the new technological part of the job, I consider myself lucky that Hennepin County has a robust judicial training program that covers a huge array of topics—from overviews of criminal law and specialty courts to hands on training with the internal systems we use every day. I was also able to shadow experienced judges on the calendars and assignments I am now handling, which was immensely helpful. The judicial and district court administration do a wonderful job of welcoming the new judges and showing us the ropes.

What do you think is the most pressing issue facing our judicial system today?

There are many practical issues facing our judicial system today, which include the way the pandemic has affected the ability to hold court hearings and trials, the backlogs that were already present but that have been made exponentially worse by this pandemic, and budget issues all state organizations are facing. Fundamentally, though, the most pressing issues facing our judicial system today are the racial disparities in the justice system and the lack of trust in the justice system by our Hennepin County residents.

These issues have existed for a long time but have become more pronounced recently, particularly in Hennepin County. I think everyone involved in the justice system at every level is trying to figure out how and what can be reformed to address the disparities we see in society and in our courts. I am grateful to come to this role with community and work experience in addressing the elimination of racial disparities in the justice system. I hope to use that experience, as well as my personal experiences as a Black woman working in this justice system, to find solutions to these most pressing issues. I have been pleased to see Hennepin County District Court recognizes the importance of addressing these important matters. Of course, it takes all justice partners working together to address this issue, but I am hopeful we will see changes in this area soon.

What’s been the most surprising thing for you since taking the bench?

The most surprising thing for me has been the number of decisions I make in a single day. Even though I worked in front of the district court for years, I took for granted the amount of decision-making that goes into every aspect of a judge’s day. I have come to appreciate that each decision a judge makes—on bail, on conditional release or probation conditions, on fines and surcharges, on jail time, on motions, on continuance requests, on rulings, etc.—can take significant time and consideration. Most importantly, each of those decisions really matter to a litigant (or a victim) in a case and will affect their lives. So, while I have been surprised by this learning curve, I am also humbled by it and have realized the impact a judge makes with each decision made, big or small.

What’s your favorite thing to do outside of work?

My favorite thing to do outside of work is to spend time with my family – my husband, our three daughters and French Fry, our 12-year-old pug. In a non-pandemic world, I also love to travel with my family to warm, sunny places during the winter.

What book(s) do you recommend?

My two favorite books are Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. Those two books are always at the top of my book recommendation list.

Managing Editor
Elsa Cournoyer

Executive Editor

Joseph Satter