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Continued: Jan. 26: Maverick judge to decide fate of sex offenders program

  • Article by: CHRIS SERRES , Star Tribune
  • Last update: September 3, 2014 - 8:31 PM

He quickly gained a reputation for toughness and impartiality as a judge.

In the late 1980s, Frank was a member of a statewide task force on the prevention of sexual violence against women, which met following a string of rapes and murders of women in downtown Minneapolis. The task force called for increased prison sentences and expanded treatment for rapists and other sex offenders.

In early 1993, Frank learned that a retired state judge had just used the term “Martin Luther Coon” twice during the week leading up to the holiday honoring slain civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. That day, Frank drove to the local courthouse where the slurs occurred and ordered the retired judge to clean out his desk and leave immediately.

While Frank was originally pigeonholed as a liberal, his rulings as a federal judge have been anything but lenient. He has sentenced 253 defendants to prison during the past five years, imposing an average sentence of 67 months — longer than his peers on the federal bench in Minnesota and 40 percent longer than the average prison sentence for the nation.

In 2005, the judge surprised some observers when he sentenced the infamous “SpongeBob Bandit” to 37 years in prison for a string of local bank robberies. The robber, Clyde Scott Thompson, earned the nickname because he stuck his loot in a bag decorated with the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants.

And while Frank has gone public with his struggles with addiction — he proudly displayed his Alcoholics Anonymous medallion during a recent speech in Virginia — the judge is notoriously tough on drug offenders. He has a “zero tolerance” policy for offenders who violate their court-ordered treatment, requiring them to appear before him within 36 hours after testing positive for drugs.

“I firmly believe that when Judge Frank was robed, he left his political leanings at the door,” said Minneapolis attorney Robert Weinstine.

Frank can also be unusually personable for a federal judge, occasionally coming down from the bench to talk and shake hands with defendants.

In 2005, during a particularly tense moment in the lengthy trial of a teenager who went on a shooting spree on the Red Lake Indian Reservation, Frank called the attorneys into his chambers and had them watch an inspiring online video of an autistic boy, nicknamed “J Mac,” who made a series of three-point shots in the final moments of a high school basketball game.

“He has this way about him, where even a defendant who has been given a harsh sentence will walk out of his courtroom and think, `I have been heard fully and dealt with fairly,’ ” said Sharon Chadwick, an assistant St. Louis County attorney.

Ruling coming soon

Attorneys involved in the MSOP case have been wary of predicting how Frank will rule. At a December court hearing, Frank appeared concerned that civil commitment had become a backdoor form of punishment in cases where the criminal justice system had failed to fully prosecute violent sex offenders.

“There’s all these plea bargains going on, and a lot of great criminal changes that few people are taking advantage of, instead of prosecuting to the maximum,” Frank said in the courtroom.

Eric Janus, dean and president of William Mitchell College of Law, said it is likely by design that Frank scheduled a ruling on the constitutionality of the sex offender program less than two weeks before the Legislature reconvenes in late February.

“What he might do is send a message to lawmakers that, ‘Look, you better take this seriously and fix this,’ ” Janus said. “Because otherwise, you’ll have a federal judge breathing down your neck.”


Chris Serres • 612-673-4308


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  • Judge Donovan Frank

  • Judge Donovan W. Frank

    U.S. district judge, District of Minnesota

    Born: June 24, 1951, Rochester, Minn.

    Education: Graduated from Spring Valley High School, Spring Valley, Minn., 1969; Bachelor’s degree from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, 1973; Hamline University School of Law, J.D., magna cum laude, 1977.

    Career history: Assistant county attorney, St. Louis County, Minn., 1977-1985; judge, Minnesota District Court, 1985-1998; chief judge, Sixth Judicial District, 1991-1996: Recommended to the federal bench by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone and appointed by former President Bill Clinton in 1998.

    Honors: American Bar Association’s Paul G. Hearne Award for Disability Rights, 2012; Minnesota Trial Judge of the Year, 1996; Luther Granquist Systems Change Award from Arc Minnesota, 2011.

    Family: Wife of 40 years, Kathy (Jacobson) Frank; they have five daughters

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