In John Dehen's first year, attorneys asked to be assigned to a different judge 127 times. The number is down sharply in Year 2.
Attorneys appear to be getting used to Anoka County's newest judge, after a statistically unusual get-acquainted period.
In 2011, John Dehen's first year on the bench, attorneys made 127 requests to have him removed from their cases and replaced with another judge; the next highest number in the county was 13. To date this year, Dehen's number is down to 14, still relatively high in a smaller court district but a huge drop.
Attorneys don't have to provide a reason when they ask for removal of a judge, but they don't take such action lightly. Several who filed removal notices for Dehen declined to comment publicly when contacted by the Star Tribune. Some who asked not to be named said they thought the former prosecutor appeared to be an "anti-defense attorney" and lacked a strong understanding of certain legal issues.
Dehen didn't return several phone calls from a reporter. But his judicial colleagues say he isn't afraid to ask questions and has demonstrated a sincere desire to serve the public good from the bench.
"Judge Dehen has taken great strides in his transition from the bar to the bench," said Judge Alan Pendleton, his mentor in Anoka County. "He brings a fresh perspective on policy considerations and innovative suggestions on how to implement various judicial policies."
Dehen, 50, stunned observers when he defeated 26-year Anoka County Judge Michael Roith in the November 2010 election. Dehen was in private practice as an attorney, was a Ramsey City Council member, and served as the city's prosecutor.
The fact that Dehen reached the bench through election was itself unusual. The majority of judges in Minnesota are initially appointed rather than elected.
On his campaign website, Dehen wrote that "repeat offenders that hurt others should have harsh consequences by our courts. Thoughtful consideration is for those offenders who are good people but have made poor choices." In another section, he wrote that "judicial intervention into family decisions is to be exercised with caution and only when necessary."
Several attorneys said they took his campaign statements to heart, choosing to have Dehen removed because they perceived him to have a possible bias against their clients.
Joe Tamburino, a criminal defense attorney who has never appeared in front of Dehen, said that in general lawyers who have to campaign for judgeships may say some things "that could bite them in the end." If a judge had made certain statements that unsettled him, "I'm running out of the courtroom," he said.
Absence of a history
"Since attorneys do not have to list a reason when exercising their right to remove a judge, any reason for a removal is speculation unless you speak to the attorney," said Anoka County Judge Lawrence Johnson.
"With a new judge, one of the reasons may be the judge's lack of history on handling a specific matter," Johnson said, emphasizing that he was speaking generally and not about Dehen. "Removals based on uncertainty would decrease over time as the attorneys develop an understanding of a judge's approach to various issues."
In Dehen's case, most of the removal requests in 2011 came during the first half of the year and mostly involved criminal cases; they came from a mix of private attorneys and public defenders.
Another judge who was new to the bench in 2011, Lezlie Ott Marek in Ramsey County, had two removal notices in her first year. Marek, appointed at the end of 2010 by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, is running unopposed for reelection this year.
Veteran Hennepin County Judge Patricia Kerr Karasov was another jurist with a large number of removal requests last year: 296, the most in her judicial district. Those came as she was involved in controversy over accusations that she lived outside her district for part of 2009; the state Constitution requires judges to reside in the district they serve.
The large number of removals for Dehen in 2011 didn't created a burden for Anoka County's 16 other judges because a computerized case assignment system equalizes the workload, said Jennifer Schlieper, the county's court administrator. Case conflicts arise for a wide variety of reasons, "and our system and staff are set up to handle it," she said. An attorney has 10 days to file a removal notice after the case is assigned to a judge.
In action in court
During a recent day in court, Dehen handled an expungement case and a trial involving stolen property. He asked the attorneys to give "one- or two-word" reasons if they raised objections and quickly handled several at trial. He joked with prospective jurors during jury selection.
Family law attorney Barbara Gislason said Dehen exerted more effort than other judges to find a disposition that satisfied both parties.
"If I had to give somebody an 'A' for effort, I would give him an 'A' for effort," she said.
David Chanen • 612-673-4465