*We are continuing our Meet the Candidates conversations for the November 3rd, 2020 elections. We recently talked with Assistant Chief Judge Jana M. Austad from the Ninth Judicial District who is running for reelection. Her opponent James Hughes, will also be our guest in the next few weeks.
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*KAXE/KBXE News and Public Affairs Director Heidi Holtan recently spoke with Judge Halverson. The following transcript has been edited for clarity. The audio of this interview is available at the top of this page.
(Heidi) Q: Tell us how you became a judge.
(Judge Austad) A: In terms of my becoming a judge, I became a judge the way the vast majority of judges in Minnesota become a judge when there is a seat that is open most of the time - because of a judge's retirement. There can be some other reasons, obviously for people leaving, but it's usually in the middle of the six year term and Minnesota is what we call a hybrid state. They have a merit selection. That's the way the majority of judges come to the bench in Minnesota, but they also stand for elections. So each seat in the state of Minnesota or the 24 and the ninth judicial district are up for election on a six year rotation. So for instance, I was appointed to seat 19 in the ninth judicial district. My seat was up shortly after I was appointed til I ran one time on a post.
The process starts by completing an application. So somebody decides perhaps they are candidates that might be attractive to the selection commission for a judicial seat. And the application itself is pretty substantial. You're identifying all the cases that you've tried, people that you've tried cases against judges that you've appeared in front of places that you have volunteered all of your employment history. There's a great deal of information that goes into that application. The judicial selection commission is made up. I believe of 27 folks that are appointed by the governor with another 21 or 22 that are appointed by the Supreme court. These people are cross section from all over the state of Minnesota, both attorneys and non-attorneys. So anybody that happens to be listening that thinks that they would like to participate in this. This is the type of thing that you can volunteer to do at any rate.
Once people have put in their applications that want to be considered the judicial selection commission goes through all those applications. My impression is that they do all of that really on their own. So that's not a” talking with everybody else” process. They go through, they read the applications, they rank their top three or four in a particular order. Based on those numbers, then the commission picks usually six to eight people to interview. Those numbers can depend based on where it's at, how many applications there are, that type of thing, but there's some logical place to stop when you're deciding then who to interview. Then you are interviewed by the commission that is usually seven to 15 people that pepper you with some questions of interest to them. Try that interview with following that we have vetting, which is it's a formalized professional gossiping in the sense that you are getting informal information about people.
It is behind the applicant's back and it is anonymous. So I think the reassuring thing for Minnesotans is to know that there's some troubling things in an applicant's background, probably somebody who's going to come forward and say it because there's a lot of safety in putting that information out there because of the anonymous process of vetting after the vetting, the commission determined, usually three people to send on to the governor. And it's a little bit of a duplication of that process. They look at all of your written materials that you've supplied for your application. Should they review the vetting process? You go in and interview, it's usually a team interviewer. So it's, the governor might be the governor's attorney might be the governor's chief of staff, a head of the judicial selection commission. There's usually a group that's there for that interview. They do some more vetting again, following that interviewing process.
And ultimately then the governor makes a selection. The governor is not bound by the recommendations of the judicial selection commission, but I, I can't think of an example, at least off the top of my head where that process has been ignored. So that's the way most people come to the bench and that's the way I came to the bench.
That's a lot of people involved. It is a lot of people involved in, and that's where I you know, we're dealing with this time in society where I think there's a lot of suspicion about our government agencies and our government. Generally. I really believe that Minnesota has got a good process. It's not a perfect process. There's plenty of imperfect judges among them for varying different reasons there's imperfections. But I think what it does tell the citizens is that there is a rigorous process that helps identify the things that would be the most concerning or the most problematic for somebody that had to bring their controversy before a judge.
Q: We are talking with Judge Janna M. Austad. We are finding out more about her reelection bid to stay as judge in the ninth district of Minnesota. Can you tell us a little bit about your background in terms of, I'm sure you did many different things before you came, became a judge. Is there anything that stands out to you that really turned out to be good experience for the role you're playing now for your community?
A: Well, good experience has really your entire lifetime because you, you really are in contact with every walk of life, every type of problem and controversy that hits people. So things that I think matter to me, I'm from this area, I grew up in Bemidji with the high school and the magical lumberjacks that I went down, I did go to school in Minnesota. So I went to college at iceberg and law school at William Mitchell. And came back up to Bemidji, to practice with Keif, Fuller, Baer, Wallner & Rodgers. At the time I did a lot of civil practice represented a lot of townships. When you're in law school, they tell you, you're not going to get into constitutional areas very often is as an attorney, it was the opposite for me. You know, you get into that very grassroots level and takings and those kinds of things bring up constitutional principles.
And then I also ended up in doing a lot of criminal defense work, another area where you are always into the constitution. So I would say where I grew up, where I've lived, where I've raised my kids the type variety of the work that I've been.
And I think another thing that's really mattered to me in terms of how I view things is that I stayed on raise kids for over seven years. I took the break in my career, not knowing if I would get a career back afterwards, traveled around. I was a stay at home mom and loved being a parent, but that's not the traditional path to advancing your career to a judgeship. So I thought that probably eliminated that option for me. And I was very pleased that that was something that other people did not view as a negative, but as a positive, a positive experience for me to be able to bring to the bench.
Q: The role of a judge requires you to be nonpartisan. Is that a difficult thing for you to do in your life? And that means personal too then?
A: Yeah, no, no. It is not a difficult thing for me to do at all. I, again, I talked about the fact that there is a growing suspicion and discontentment about the integrity of our agencies and our systems and people are uncomfortable about that. And I have found when I'm out talking to people that that is a question that, that they're suspicious about. Is it really nonpartisan?
I was talking to a friend of mine that heads up a big building company in Northern Minnesota. And I asked simply, would you build a house differently for a couple of liberal professors or a person who was a Trump supporter? Would the house be built differently? He said, no, but don't you apply the law differently?
A doctor doesn't practice medicine differently. I don't think the plumber plumbs the house differently, you spend your lifetime developing skills that your hope you're good at, and that people will have confidence in and that you find dignity in. Don't compromise that by personal feelings that arise over certain issues, they're not influential in the decision making. Certainly I have a perspective, but I think my perspective is more broadly as a human being.
I think really the words liberal and conservative as a judge had very different meaning than most people think about in politics. A liberal judge can do interpretation quite widely, and that could land somebody politically conservative or politically liberal. So being a liberal judge doesn't mean that you have liberal outcome. You could be a liberal judge and come out with really different outcomes. A conservative judge is very narrow in their reading. They're very strict with themselves about how they read the law, how they apply the law, how they read the cases that have come down from higher up. And it's not your judgment. It is your skill and understanding what a statute or rule or a prior case tells you to do and having the discipline to apply it in that way. And that's, that's the role of a judge that is the role of a good judge.
And I frankly, would go so far as to say that if you are a good judge, if a judge has a view - that it's somebody else's agenda. That person doesn't have the discipline to be on the bench. You have to be able to apply the law as it is not as you think it should be.
Q: People come before the courts at difficult times in their lives. Do you have advice for them in understanding the court system? We are talking in the evening and recording this conversation because of your schedule. What's a typical day like, or is that even a fair question? Is there anything typical about your days?
A: I don't think that there is a typical day district courts in Minnesota are of course in general jurisdiction. So I hear everything from conciliation court matters and default credit card debts to prescreen homicides, and I hear them in a regular rotation. So I can also have days that have very heavy calendars where it's one person after another coming in and other days where it's one case - and I can have days where there isn't the case.
There are days usually when you're writing and researching and following up on drafting order. So I don't find that there is a very typical day. And certainly now with COVID-19, I mean, that's even the routines of our calendar are completely disrupted at, at this point.
But you'd asked about how it is for a person coming in or that they're not familiar with the court system. I would say that almost to every person it feels pretty critical if there is a point that they're coming to court, even if they have a pretty straightforward matter that they are expecting that to be a controversy. If it brings somebody into the court system, there's an energy around that. And most people actually feel quite anxious before they come into court. And that's something that I think judges know and expect. And hopefully they're all kind and give some people some room to experience those feelings before they get going on whatever issue that is that they need to have resolved
Q: Any advice on how to approach if you are going to be in court, whether that means, you know, a case that you are involved in, even when it comes to jury duty too…
A: Yeah. So litigants increasingly are faced with court actions where for any variety of reasons - I won't usually know the details of their financial circumstances - that they at least feel that they cannot afford an attorney. And I'm sure frequently quite genuinely they cannot afford an attorney. One of the things maybe that I could say to listeners is that if you have a controversy that feels critical to you and overwhelming to you, even if you can't afford to hire an attorney to resolve the whole matter for you, a lot of attorneys also care about the system. People want fair outcomes and they want some consistency. The attorneys do, they're committed to this system as well. Many attorneys will talk to you and do some sort of consultation without charging you, particularly if you're calling them in their area, they're able to relay that information, some general information quite quickly, that's helpful.
And if you can't even if you need more help than that, but can't afford an attorney through the entire process, you can talk to an attorney about consulting with them. Like how much do you really need to know before? You feel like you can go in and advocate for yourself a little bit to allay some of your fears or suspicions because there is a lot of complexity to the law and it, isn't the kind of thing where you can get up to speed broadly on your own and just represent yourself easily. But I would encourage people to stay engaged with their legal community broadly and get some assistance.
Q: This is the second time you said that you will be up for election this time. You are, you have someone running against you. How are you approaching this election must be a different experience for you.
A: It's a different experience. It is somewhat of a stressful experience. You know, I I knew I had an election in this role and I decided it's a known hazard. When you accept an appointment that somebody can file against you and you have to run for an election, a little daunting, I will tell you probably for the vast majority of judges, we tend to be a little bit more introverted than extroverted. So the idea of campaigning is quite daunting. What I did decide, however, is that since it was a known hazard, I had an obligation to put some time and some money into this process. And I decided to focus on educating people about the system and not just about the election. I've been talking to people about the fact that this is 17 counties and three reservations.
I’ve been talking about what merit selection is. I've been talking to people out in the community about the things you and I are talking about right now. So it doesn't reduce readily to any kind of a campaign slogan. I've had to reach out to people and say, can I have 20 minutes or half hour to talk to you about this? And if you think this matters, and this is a good way to be engaged and to be an educated voter, then I'm asking you to talk to your neighbors or other organizations that you participate in and tell people what you have learned.
So that's how I felt good about campaigning - to say, this is the system I believe in. I believe in Minnesotans, I believe in the people of the ninth judicial district. And I believe they want to know, and they want to understand their system and they want to have a good court system with good integrity. And I am finding that when I get through the nonpartisan discussion, there has been a lot of people that have been interested in learning and they have wanted to put up a sign because it doesn't divide them from their neighbors or their family because it isn't partisan.
*please credit KAXE/KBXE - independent public media in northern MN when using excerpts of this interview. Responses to our Meet the Candidates interviews can be left at 218-999-9876 or by email.