Rosenblum: Departing U law professor is judged highly by former students

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 23, 2012 - 8:31 PM

Toddrick Barnette was leaning toward a master's degree in law enforcement when a professor made a prediction that sounded nothing short of crazy.

"You're going to be a judge," University of Minnesota Law School Prof. Stephen Simon told his student -- now Hennepin County District Judge Barnette.

Barnette, 46, still laughs at the memory. "Never in my wildest dreams growing up in a low-income family in Washington, D.C., did I think that possible," said Barnette, who almost bolted from law school after a year, feeling miserably out of place.

"Steve said I had a good demeanor for the courtroom. I thought, 'Here's this crazy Jewish guy I really like just saying stuff.'"

Good demeanor aside, Barnette is among hundreds of Minnesota judges carrying better-than-good judicial skills to the bench, thanks largely to mentor Simon, who has announced his retirement from the U. He'll shift to adjunct status and, fortunately, will continue his legendary work in training new judges.

But he's done leading a DWI task force that's made Minnesota roads measurably safer through stricter regulations for repeat offenders, and is wrapping up his misdemeanor defense and prosecution clinics. The defense clinic required Simon to be in court almost every day to assist young lawyers defending a host of clients.

"It's a job for a younger man," said Simon, 69. "I come home and sit on the couch, drained."

Simon has been a public defender, a prosecutor and an attorney in private practice. He joined the U faculty in 1980. Two years later, he developed the training program that introduces new judges to courtroom management. Or lack-thereof.

Simon says he remains surprised by how few resources are available to help judges successfully manage their courtrooms, from the sleeping juror to the disruptive defendant to the observer in the back of the room giving the stink eye to a witness. And yet, "there are no more than five or six books" on the topic, he marvels.

A year ago, Simon condensed his 40 years of legal experience into an electronic bench book called "Trial Procedures and Practices from the Judge's Perspective." Not a bodice-ripper, but certainly impressive. Think Wikipedia meets Judge Judy.

From the bench, a judge overseeing a trial can click on a topic or do a word search ("Sleeping Juror" or "Contempt" for example), to quickly access rules and procedures, flow charts and decision trees. Law school multimedia specialist Glen Anderson and former law student Chelsea Becker assisted Simon with its creation.

But, isn't it unnerving for jurors to see an esteemed judge tapping away on a computer like a teenager researching a social studies project? Not a bit, Simon said.

"Judges had to know this information before, but it helps them to know it quicker to make better decisions. This is complex stuff. It's particularly helpful for new judges."

Hennepin County District Judge Jay Quam was one. He took Simon's misdemeanor defense and prosecution classes in 1986 and 1987, and later participated in Simon's training program.

The pressures on judges, said Quam, who joined the bench in 2006, are keener today, with fewer resources, larger caseloads and an expectation of quick decisions.

"There's a false expectation that you put on a robe and you know it all," Quam said, "But we need more help than just about anybody."

Hennepin County District Judge Jeannice Reding got an inkling of her future during a Simon-led mock trial "so filled with potential pitfalls" that it bordered on theater of the absurd.

U of M students played jurors and real prosecutors and defense attorneys acted their roles, "but they're quite outlandish at times," Reding recalled. She suspects that Simon tapped his "practical joker" inner-child during much of it. Still, his purpose was altogether serious.

"Steve wanted to train us to be observant and prepared, to not panic when something new comes up in trial. You have to have the presence of mind to figure out when to take a moment and reassess and regain control over the courtroom."

Simon stops by on occasion to see how she's doing. "This is such a hard job," Reding said. "To have a resource like Steve is invaluable."

Simon will continue to update the bench book, which gets about 1,000 hits a month. He'll have more time with his family and to kayak. He has a gig as a trolley conductor at Lake Harriet and an idea for a children's book spinning in his head.

But his legacy, Quam said, is teaching those in lofty positions to "never give up on people."

To do the law justice, in Simon's view, is less about legality and more about psychology. "Law defines relationships between human beings," Simon said. "Be respectful to everybody. Even if they lose, people who feel heard are more accepting of the outcome."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350

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