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The four candidates vying for two open judicial seats in Minnesota's largest district court come with varying philosophies and experience.
But on one issue they all agree: Even in an overburdened system, it's crucial that the citizens are listened to when it's their turn for a day in court.
Two judges are retiring or leaving the bench at the end of their terms, leaving voters to decide who will fill open two open seats in the Fourth Judicial District, which encompasses all of Hennepin County and handles an estimated 800,000 cases annually. Their experiences are wide-ranging.
Seat 44: Marc Berris vs. Lois Conroy
Marc Berris said that when he first dreamed of becoming a lawyer, it didn't include aspirations of becoming a judge. But after 10 years of serving as a Conciliation Court referee, he's changed his mind.
"Being an arbiter rather than an advocate fit my personality well, and that's really what got me thinking about it," said Berris, a partner in Segal, Roston & Berris, PLLP who has practiced for 18 years in a variety of areas.
Berris, 44, a criminal defense attorney, often travels throughout Minnesota. Contrary to outstate counties, where a smaller population means a lighter workload, a single judge in Hennepin County District Court can handle dozens of cases per day.
"It's a challenge for judges to provide the level of service that people who come to the courts expect, and I welcome the opportunity to meet that challenge and provide attentive service for people that come into court so they feel like they're treated fairly."
Berris lives in New Hope with his wife, Julie, and teenage sons.
Lois Conroy's goal is to improve people's lives. Innovation, she said, is the key to achieving it.
The 14-year Minneapolis city prosecutor has spearheaded programs that have significantly contributed to reductions in crime, such as the Downtown 100 Initiative and Downtown CourtWatch, designed to monitor and target frequent offenders in downtown Minneapolis. The programs have led to significant crime reductions both in and out of downtown that have resulted in recognition by fellow attorneys, law enforcement and civic organizations.
She'd like to continue her mission as a Hennepin County judge.
"I believe there's always an opportunity in government to attract people who are innovative, hardworking and want to make a difference," she said.
After stints in civil and corporate law, Conroy, 41, said she has spent the duration of her career as a criminal prosecutor. It's given her the experience and flexibility to handle large dockets of cases. She's also been tapped to handle drug and chronic offender cases for the Hennepin County Attorney's Office. Her career has long been focused on determining what is the best plan for an offender and helping to find the best outcome.
"What I do is what judges do on the bench every day, which is to call the balls and the strikes, hearing everything and deciding what plan to implement."
Conroy and her husband, Martin, have twin sons.
Seat 22: Steven Antolak vs. Elizabeth Cutter
In three decades as an attorney, Steven Antolak has seen it all. From criminal defense and prosecution to contracts and divorce work, one thing is constant.
"I've learned the way the judge manages the trial and courtroom has a profound effect on the litigants," he said.
Antolak, 55, said that he has compassion for those who end up in the court system and that innovation through technology can make their trips through the judicial system easier. He's been a paperless attorney for five years and believes tools like teleconferencing could improve productivity -- as could after-hours self-help centers.
"Most of the public has gotten used to googling for solutions," he said. "We need to direct people to solutions that are appropriate, and part of that is simplifying the law and procedures so ordinary people can understand what's going on and make informed decisions about whether or not they need legal counsel."
Antolak also touts his five years on the Osseo School Board, a position where he had to make difficult decisions, including whether to close schools.
"I know how to be under that heat and how to do the right thing without feeling like a chump," he said.
Antolak and his wife, Joni Mack, have a teenage son. They live in Brooklyn Park.
Elizabeth Cutter has spent her entire career as a public service attorney, the majority of it in two decades as a Hennepin County prosecutor. As a result, she's worked with citizens from all walks of life, often during their most challenging moments.
From it, she said, she's become known for her compassion, strong work ethic and commitment to justice. She also knows how Hennepin County works.
"The biggest difference any judge can make is to be prepared, to be timely and respectful, and to make sure the people who appear before them know that they are heard," said Cutter, who last year was named Attorney of the Year by Minnesota Lawyer. "Studies have shown that when people appear before judges, even if a decision is adverse to them, if they feel they are heard, they'll believe the decision is a fair decision."
Cutter, 60, a senior attorney in the Adult Prosecution Division, also continues to serve on the enrollee appeals committee for the Minnesota Comprehensive Health Association. She considers it a judicial-like position, in which she hears appeals from people who would like to purchase insurance through the association. It's a position that requires fairness, impartiality and respect.
As a judge, Cutter said that by doing the job well, she would help to educate the public about the courts system and how it works. She would like to address the growing number of litigants who represent themselves, particularly in family court, where it's up to 40 percent. Helping them help themselves is part of a larger mission, she said.
"It makes a difference to people when they feel like our system is accessible and can be made understandable to them," she said.
Cutter and her husband, Perry Wilson, have three adult children.
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921