Checking In with Chief Judge Barnette: Part 2

This is part two of our conversation with Hennepin County District Court Chief Judge Toddrick Barnette. Ayah Helmy conducted this interview via Zoom in mid-January 2022. In this part, Barnette discusses the impact high-profile cases had on the district, how the court has connected with the community, and the importance of wellbeing. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.  

Read part one of the interview with Judge Barnette.

Ayah Helmy: I wanted to shift to the other bucket of questions we covered last time. George Floyd, Daunte Wright, there's been a lot under your purview as chief judge. With these high-profile cases, particularly around issues of police brutality and race, as you being the first Black Chief Judge in this position, how has that played out for you? How are you personally feeling? 

Toddrick Barnette: In the position that we're in, we're not able to make statements on pending cases. Being very mindful of that, that was tough when you see communities burning, people super upset, the idea that this is just not a police problem, this is a system problem.  How can you respond publicly without addressing race or mentioning the death of Mr. Floyd? That was very tough for me. I think it was very frustrating for the judges as well—we are the venue for this case, and we can't be the story for this case.

That was tough, but here's some great things that came out of that. We provided spaces for our employees to be able to talk about these issues because they are part of the branch. They can't be on social media making these comments either. They're literally living in the communities that are burning. They are living where there are protests and things like that. We provided listening sessions for our employees, and specifically for our employees of color, as well, just to have spaces to talk about issues and frustrations. We were able to do that for our judges as well. In fact, not too long ago, there was another judge session. 

It's very interesting that all of this is going on and we're having some tough conversations, but at the same time, people are afraid because we've shifted to this mindset of being totally politically correct. People are having a hard time expressing how they truly feel because they are so afraid that they're going to offend someone. 

I'll use this example: if I have a Caucasian colleague in the courtroom and they had an interaction with a person of color, they might have walked into my office and said, "Hey Todd, this happened, can we talk about it?” Now, they're afraid to walk in because they're afraid that someone is going to call them a racist. The pendulum has moved so far, but we’ve got to continue to have these conversations. We can't be afraid that you're going to offend someone. And that's the environment that we have to try to create here. You still have to say it. You still have to talk about it, and we have to respond in a compassionate way. We all have to learn together and move forward. We have got to move forward. That's what I've seen our employees do, and that's what I've seen our judges do, is have these conversations and identify areas in which we can do better. 

It's been a tough two years with all this going on. But one of the things we continue to do is our work around diversity equity and inclusion. That has not stopped. 

The judges have a retreat twice a year—a spring and a fall retreat. During my first retreat as chief judge—so this is after the death of Mr. Floyd and all the unrest—the judges were broken down into divisions and were asked to identify areas that they saw that promoted disparities. Within your own division, what do you see? We also had our top administrators and referees there. Out of that retreat, we identified those things, and then on the second retreat we reported on what we have down within our division to make things better. 

It was really amazing to watch the judges go through that, and this is still something we continue to work on within each division. All of my presiding judges, and all of my chairs of the standing committees were asked to come up with long-term and short-term goals within their divisions, or within their standing committees. A lot of those goals that the committees touched on are somehow related to disparities. 

It's so interesting, Judge Brown and his budget committee, you think, what does diversity, equity, or inclusion work have to do with the budget? It's just numbers. But Judge Brown was able to bring this lens to the budget committee and say, you know what, when we make a decision, we're going to see or we're going to talk about or think about, is it having any disparities? Is there any impact that we're really not thinking about? 

So you go, "We've never done this before." Well, we're in a pandemic now, but say we're approving someone for a trip, or a remote conference, right? Who's going? Who are they? Who else has had that opportunity? Are we sending the same folks all the time? What benefit are we getting from it? Adding that lens of, what are we doing, and are we creating any disparity at all? Whether that's at lunchtime meetings where we might have lunch and have to order out. Where are we getting our lunch from? We're thinking about those things. Are we just using the same place? Let's go support some other places and do some things differently. 

Internally, a lot of our work has changed. A lot of our work with staff, from our line staff all the way up to our deputies and administrators and judges.

AH: In the past two years, what have been the biggest challenges and the biggest successes that you've had in bridging the gap between the judiciary and the community?

The challenge is that we can't go out in public. There is a different feel to be with folks in person. 

But one of the things that's not talked about, that goes unnoticed, is that every couple of months we meet with some Lake Street business owners. And this was instigated by Judge Kappelhoff and Judge Hoyos. The business owners wanted to have a way to communicate with the judges and talk about what's happening with their business and how it's impacting them. And a lot of it is about livability crime, and there are other things that are happening that they just want to make us aware of. That's been huge.  

A couple of months ago they said, “Judge, what can we do for you guys? What can we do to support you? What asks do you have for us?” That's never happened in a meeting for me. That was huge, I've never had that happen before. 

In juvenile court, they've started this Youth Justice Council with community members being a part of that council. One of the things that they discussed early on was the expungement process for juveniles, which is very cumbersome.  With the justice partners in the community— they actually have probation officers, prosecutors, judges, public defenders, and community members talking about issues early—they got to change that process to make it easier. So that's been huge for them down there. I think that's been great. 

We are also starting to roll out, although we've had it for quite some time, the ability for people to call in and get court dates where they might have warrants. We just have not done a great job at publicizing that. We're rebranding what we used to call our Warrant Hotline because that doesn't sound good. We're just trying to find ways to get folks the information if they have a warrant, especially if it's a misdemeanor. We just want to be helpful. As much as we can legally, we want to help you come take care of that warrant. If it's a felony, we still want to try and find a way. Even if that does involve you being in custody. But we can at least get you on the calendar quicker, right? Can the lawyers at least talk and get you a court date if you turn yourself in? Whatever we can do to try and bridge that gap.

Our challenge is trying to regain trust, or if we didn't have trust with certain people, to gain that trust, but that's pretty hard if you're saying, I want to invite you to a Zoom meeting and not walking in the door.

It doesn't necessarily relate to your question about the community, but just creating a more diverse workforce for us has been important. When you come to our counter, you see someone that looks like you that you can feel comfortable asking a question that you maybe wouldn't ask before. We still have some work to do with our judicial staff and making it more diverse. We still have challenges there, and we need to continue to do a better job reaching out. 

One of our successes in that area is that I've gotten more involved with the interview process for our referees and other top administrative positions. We've changed some of the criteria and the process on how we reach out. I don't think we did a good job previously of reaching out to folks and getting a diverse candidate pool. We've done some things to do that. And also, we've had to look at some things internally and say, "We're getting folks in, but are we weeding them out that they're not making it to the final round?" 

We've had to change some things to make sure that people are making it to the final round who deserve to be there. We've done a better job there. 

Retention is still a challenge. I know people are leaving jobs and going other places, but I think it's our responsibility to create an environment—even though it's public service—where people are leaving because of money, and you're not leaving because of the environment. It’s important for us to create a good work environment where you can see yourself thrive.

We've had some really good trainings for our managers and supervisors along these areas. Let's broaden our perspective on who we think could be supervisors, promote people we can within our organization, and bring in folks from the outside. We've done some really good work in that area. That's a big place for us, where we work very hard to change our recruitment practices and interviewing. I think we've seen some good results, but retention, we've got to retain folks. So that's important for us as well.

AH: I think that issue and that challenge is present in a lot of places. To retain and to promote is the more difficult, and the more important work, I think.

I wanted to ask you, is there anything we haven't talked about today that you would like the readers of the Hennepin Lawyer to know, to keep in mind to understand where the judiciary is heading in Hennepin County, or what you're experiencing in the judiciary? 

We’re really starting to have these conversations about wellbeing. That is so important for all of us. I think we're seeing Zoom fatigue. Our judges, when they were in court normally, had the opportunity to have a break because of the ebb and flow of cases. Well now they are not getting that break on Zoom because everything is continuous. Someone is coming out of that breakout, or someone is ready next and it's a continuation and so it's trying to be able to get to those emails where you normally had an opportunity to do it, but it's hard to do it when you're on Zoom. 

Going through all of these high-profile trials that we've had, this pandemic, being remote, being isolated, asking to do as much work as you can from home and not being here in the office, well-being is going to be huge for us in 2022. We’re just trying to make sure that our staff and judicial officers’ well-being is taken care of, and our justice partners are struggling just as much as everyone else. We’re just trying to be mindful of that. We've had our own internal discussions about being mindful and trying to be understanding that when we see the people that we work with and we don’t see them at their best, just remember that sometimes they're expecting us to always be on our best, but we have to also understand that there is a lot of things going on outside of their own workspace. COVID has taken a toll on people's family and friends and we're seeing that from the stress level of those that come before us, whether it's court user or lawyers, or probation officers, or whoever. Just being aware of the wellness for folks is important. 

AH: What do you do personally to manage your stress and prioritize your own wellness?

TB: I laugh a lot with my staff. I am the loudest person on my floor— all the law clerks and judicial clerks. I enjoy a good joke. I think this pandemic has definitely shown me, and I'm sure a lot of other people, these little things are now so much more important to me. 

I have one kid in high school, a junior, and another one first year in college. You recognize that as they're getting older that the couple of weeks they might have during Christmas break, they’re probably not going to be with you all the time anymore. 

With colleagues, just hopefully giving them some praise that they weren't expecting I think is important during this time. What I get a kick out of is stopping by, and people saying "Why are you here? What did I do? What's wrong?" And I go, "I'm just on the floor. I just wanted to say hello!" Having a great conversation helps me get through the day. Those things help me understand why I am here. 

I get the question like, "So you come in during the pandemic and you have this social unrest, you have these high-profile cases," and my response every time is I don't know any different. I wasn't chief prior to a pandemic. I wasn't chief prior to the death of George Floyd. I don't know any different than what I am doing now— but I am going to talk trash to the other prior chiefs when I'm done [laughs].

I love going to my son's basketball games. That's great for me that we can still do that. It's wonderful.  

No one will believe this, but I still play Panda Pop and I get a lot of comments from my colleagues about it, and a lot of attorneys about Panda Pop, and a lot of jokes about Panda Pop.  

The other thing I started doing is car detailing. My father died recently, and I have found peace in being in the garage by myself and detailing the car, just in my own space—not related to him at all, he was not a car guy. So my car and my kid’s car looks pretty good when there's not all the salt and snow about it.  


Ayah-Helmy-150Ayah Helmy

Ms. Helmy works as counsel for Bright Health and teaches at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law and the University of Minnesota. She formerly worked in private practice and as an assistant Ramsey County attorney, advising and litigating on behalf of county agencies.


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