Minnesota’s chief federal judge on Wednesday welcomed the possibility of seeing the federal bench return to full strength after nearly two years of vacancies.
However, speaking to a room of federal judges, prosecutors and attorneys, Chief U.S. District Judge John Tunheim stopped just short of naming Hennepin County Judge Nancy Brasel and attorney Eric Tostrud, nominated this week by President Donald Trump, as a tongue-in-cheek hedge against further delaying their arrivals.
“There’s still a long ways to go,” Tunheim said during his annual “State of the District” address on Wednesday at the Minneapolis Club. “We won’t mention their names so we wont jinx them but we are very anxious to have two [more] colleagues with us.”
Minnesota again ranked among the busiest federal court districts in the country last year, Tunheim said, but leaned on an unusually active roster of senior judges responsible for roughly 25 percent of the district’s caseload.
Senior status is a form of semiretirement where judges can take a substantial reduction in new cases, or even take none at all. But Tunheim said Minnesota’s senior judges, some of whom have maintained nearly full caseloads, instead have worked at a rate that is “relatively rare” for the country.
Minnesota continues to see an influx of new filings in multidistrict litigation cases, such the lawsuit against 3M Co. over its Bair Hugger warming blankets or the National Hockey League concussion litigation, which were responsible for an uptick in overall civil filings last year.
And after a precipitous decline in criminal cases filed in 2016, such filings again rose about 20 percent to 663 for the 2017 statistical period that ended June 30.
Tunheim said 42.3 percent of all (3,442) civil case filings in Minnesota were health care or pharmaceutical related, unique to Minnesota and attributable to the large medical industry presence in the state. More than a quarter of all criminal cases were drug-related and another 16 percent were for money laundering and 10 percent for fraud.
All told, Minnesota ranked 13th out of 94 federal court districts in weighted case filings for the most recently completed statistical year and was the busiest district in the Eighth Circuit.
Keeping with ongoing national trends, Tunheim said that Minnesota has also witnessed a gradual decline in federal trials in the past five years — dropping from 57 total civil and criminal trials in 2013 to 33 last year.
Tunheim said the district’s re-entry court initiative, introduced in November 2015 and one of about 60 such courts around the country, has helped drop the recidivism rate among high-risk offenders from 74 percent to 27 percent since it began. About 48 people have gone through the 18-month program, which is led by Judges Donovan Frank and Susan Richard Nelson in St. Paul. The program is the only one in the country so far to assign mentors to former inmates for additional support, Tunheim said.
Minnesota’s terrorism disengagement program — led by the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services office — continues to supervise as many as a dozen offenders at any given time, Tunheim said. The state has sentenced more terrorism-related offenders (30) than any other over the past decade and Tunheim said the federal Bureau of Prisons has recently begun to express interest in Minnesota’s program after urging from Minnesota court officials.
“It’s experimental, and obviously public safety is the most important part of the process, but helping people disengage, I think, is the wave of the future for these cases,” Tunheim said.
Newly confirmed Eighth Circuit Judge David Stras also attended Wednesday’s address, and was recognized before Tunheim took the stage. Tunheim walked the audience through a slide show presentation but joked at the outset that he considered beginning the day with a tweet about the state of Minnesota’s federal courts.
“I don’t really know how to do those or even put one together but I would have said that the court is in really, really good shape and all the judges are, like, very stable geniuses,” Tunheim said, in an apparent reference to a recent tweet from President Trump.