Last Man Standing

In the 25 years that he's served as Hennepin County's first and only chief public defender, Bill Kennedy has earned a tough-as-nails reputation for the way he defends his clients, his staff, and himself. This year he's pitted against Hennepin County prose

          Descended from Irish immigrants who settled on plots in what was then Corcoran Township, Kennedy's parents lost the farm in the second wave of the Great Depression. Bill, their oldest, was eight. He doesn't remember much of the specifics, he says, except that from that point forward "there weren't very many kind words for lawyers in our household. Or bankers."

          The family moved to the city, packing four kids into a series of tiny apartments. Kennedy remembers his father wearing shoes lined with cardboard, sharing a bed with his brother, days when it wasn't clear whether there would be dinner. But, he adds, "being poor was not a crime then. People helped us out. If America had had the same attitude towards the poor that it does now, we would have had an armed revolution in this country."

          It wasn't as if the Kennedys took their state for granted. Both parents were active in politics, the blue-collar, Farmer-Labor variety bred among people who knew they'd been ripped off. And the grandparents told stories from the old country--not of leprechauns and fair maids, but of the Troubles, the Easter Rising, James Connolly the socialist, and Michael Collins the statesman spy.

          "Justice was an everyday topic in our household," Kennedy says. "It wasn't stated quite the way lawyers or judges would state it, but it was an everyday topic. My mother, I think, was the first one who suggested to me that 'you can't tell me what fairness is, but I know when something's unfair.' I always remembered that. And she's right. You may not be able to define it, but most people share a very deep sense of what is unfair. If there were two magical words in the American language, words that get everybody's attention, it would be 'that's unfair.'

          A high school track star, Kennedy got through his education at record speed. By age 27, he'd finished a stint in the army, college at the University of Minnesota, and law school at Notre Dame. He'd also plunged into politics, starting with partisan gruntwork. Nellie Stone Johnson, the grande dame of DFL politics, remembers putting him on a job distributing handbills on Girard Avenue, and eventually finding him a couple of suburbs down the road. "I forgot to tell him where to stop," she grins. Later, he worked on the campaigns of the late Hubert Humphrey, managed Walter Mondale's runs for attorney general, and served under Mondale as an assistant AG. At 37, with an additional six years of private practice under his belt, he got the public defense job.

          Over the next quarter-century, Kennedy took his office from a staff of seven part-timers to more than 150, including 100 attorneys, on a budget of $12 million. During the fiscal year that ended last June, they handled almost 55,000 cases, approximately half the total for the entire state. He established innovations--like the "disposition adviser," a kind of in-house social worker--that were copied around the country. He encouraged his workers to form a union, the only such local in the state. And he led a series of cases that went all the way to the state and U.S. Supreme Courts, establishing precedents on things like the use of hypnosis in interrogations, search and seizure, wiretaps, and grandparent kidnapping.

          The results came at a price. In a 1971 profile in the Star Tribune Kennedy's wife, a social worker who stayed home to raise their two kids, noted that he took work home with him constantly. The marriage eventually fell apart. He drank a lot, alcoholism being "practically an occupational disease among trial lawyers" at the time. He quit on his own, went into treatment anyway when the "Minnesota Model" was still a novelty, and remains a zealous advocate for treatment. A heart bypass helped to convince him to quit smoking. His remaining obsessions, he says, are justice, jelly donuts, and landscape photography--a solitary art that takes him on long trips in search of the perfect light. His favorite subject are mountain storms.

          The most notable thing about the way people talk about Kennedy's tenure is that there are few lukewarm descriptions. Jim Krieger, who has been in the office for almost two decades, pulls out a well-worn Frederick Douglass quote to describe his boss: "Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lighting; they want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters."

          "That's Bill," Krieger says. "He's thunder and lightning. He's like one of those Cecil B. de Mille movies--all those legions--all by himself. No one knows how people like that are created. When he argues a case, you can hear a pin drop in the courtroom. You don't want to interrupt this man. People don't talk like that in 1996."

          "He's one of the most loyal people I've ever known," says Hennepin County District Court Judge David Duffy, who spent much of his working life in Kennedy's office. "It's a my-country-right-or-wrong, my-staff-person-right-or-wrong attitude. He might give you hell privately, tell you you screwed up, but he'd still support you. Unless what you did was unethical or illegal. And I think I'll be loyal back to him until the day I die."

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