Hennepin judge facing two tough challenges

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 24, 2008 - 11:19 PM

Chief District Court Judge James Swenson is battling Tom Haeg in the upcoming election, and trying to fend off looming budget cuts.

The chief judge of Hennepin County District Court James Swenson finds himself fighting tough campaigns on two fronts.

He is locked in a reelection campaign with Tom Haeg, a former family court referee for the county who decided to run after his job was eliminated in July because of budget cuts.

Swenson said he was on vacation when Haeg's job was eliminated and that former Chief Judge Lucy Wieland made the decision. Rather than take a new job at identical pay, Haeg resigned and said he would pursue a campaign to expose Wieland and Swenson's tactics. Swenson was assistant chief until last summer when he succeeded Wieland, who is now in juvenile court.

The chief, who is trying to keep the seat he has held for 13 years, said he has never seen such vicious attacks in a county judicial race. For his part, Haeg said he wanted to make a "positive statement" when he entered the race and "didn't want the campaign to be negative. This is just what we've been learning through the entire campaign."

At the same time he fends off an electoral challenge, Swenson spends mornings and evenings talking to groups about potentially devastating budget cuts from the state that could force the county to close court one day a week. "It's very difficult. Being a chief judge is very tough especially when I am spending so many hours on our budget issues," Swenson said.

Haeg is attacking Swenson on several fronts and he wrote a 2 1/2-page letter detailing his complaints. He faults Swenson for "lapses in judicial temperament," the number of cases that participants decline to have heard in his court and a state Department of Human Rights settlement with a former employee.

Haeg also said he believes he would make a better judge. "I think I'm more patient. I have the capacity to allow the litigants to establish a record," Haeg said, conceding that Swenson is very smart, but adding that can be a problem because "you run the risk of saying, 'I know better than you.'"

Swenson, who is quiet and low-key, remains baffled by Haeg's decision to challenge him and his inability to fight back. Swenson noted that he was in Europe with his wife when the decision was made to eliminate Haeg's job. He said he believes Haeg is running against him because he can't run against Wieland this year. Haeg said that isn't true.

Haeg's most recent complaint against Swenson is a "charge of discrimination" filed with the Department of Human Rights by former family court referee Susan Fallek, who says she was subject to retaliatory actions after medical leaves in 2005 and 2006. The complaint names the Fourth Judicial District as a respondent and Swenson as an "aider and abettor."

Haeg's campaign literature says that Fallek won a $75,000 discrimination award for "disability and reprisal." Fallek, who now lives in St. Louis, declined to comment through her attorney.

The Department of Human Rights said the settlement is closed and confidential. Swenson declined to comment, citing privacy laws. Courts Administrator Mark Thompson also said he cannot say anything about the case other than a settlement was reached "to resolve a dispute and avoid the cost of litigation." Fallek's allegation "tells one side of the story," he said. A spokesman for the state courts declined to confirm or deny the settlement.

Swenson, a trial lawyer for 20 years before he was appointed to the bench by Gov. Arne Carlson, said he's frustrated by last-minute accusations, especially when he is "hamstrung in what he can say."

Swenson was voted chief by his colleagues after serving in family court for more than 11 years, many of them as the presiding judge.

He is especially proud of the case-management system that speeded up the divorce process for families. "So many things I'm accused of doing, I won awards for doing the opposite," Swenson said.

The campaign has included anonymous "Wanted" fliers distributed in coffee shops and malls in the suburbs attacking Swenson's record in family court. "It's hard to fight somebody who doesn't even have the backbone to step forward and identify themselves," he said.

He's also busy trying to explain to policymakers how damaging it would be for the courts to take another budget hit. He said he finds it particularly frustrating that the courts -- a third branch of government -- are treated the same as a state agency when it comes to budget-cutting. He notes the courts comprise only 1.8 percent of the state budget and cuts will mean losing staff as well as potentially eliminating hours of operation, and crucial, nationally admired programs such as the self-help center and the domestic abuse center.

In his campaign against Swenson, Haeg also faults Swenson for having the second-highest number of cases in which participants decline to have their case heard in his court.

Swenson countered that he was in family court a long time and had ruled on significant cases in which not everyone agreed with the outcome. "If any judge has a removal problem, they get them out of court," he said.

Swenson said he's running on his record and delivering literature door-to-door in which he notes, "There isn't one mention of my opponent."

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747

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