Under Color of Law

A racially charged ethics case travels all the way from Anoka County to the state supreme court

The first request was puzzling to Madden: How could anyone not see the race issues writ large throughout the file? The motion's second point, however, raised a serious legal problem: If granted, Madden believed, it would violate Manuel's constitutional right to be represented by any attorney he chose. She complained to her boss, who called Norman's boss, the supervisor of the criminal division of the county attorney's office. Norman was quick to apologize. She also withdrew the motion asking that Manuel be denied a minority attorney. When Holland telephoned her the following week, she apologized to him as well.

Several months later, in a hearing on the matter, Norman testified that on the day she called Madden she went home "crying all the way because I had really, really messed up. I found myself wondering, Do I have a racial bias that I don't know about?"

Holland and Madden say they accepted Norman's apology, which they considered sincere. And things might have ended there--except that Norman's supervisor, Jim Weber, also got on the phone, to Madden's supervisor, Luke Stellpflug. According to the ethics complaint later filed by Madden and Holland, Weber told Stellpflug that the motion was "probably" ill-advised, but that no apology would be forthcoming from his office.

Public defenders Mike Holland and Kelly Madden teamed up on the complaint against four county prosecutors
Craig Lassig
Public defenders Mike Holland and Kelly Madden teamed up on the complaint against four county prosecutors

Disgusted, Madden wrote a letter to the state supreme court's Racial Bias Task Force, which was created in 1990 to address discrimination in the courts. She told its members that she considered the case against Manuel to be contaminated by racial bias from the beginning, and that she felt the matter suggested a systemic problem in the court system. Next, she and Holland contacted the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility, the state agency that oversees attorneys, and subsequently filed complaints against four people at the Anoka County Attorney's Office: Walden, Norman, Weber, and Anoka County Attorney Robert Johnson.

Holland's boss, Hennepin County Public Defender Bill McGee, also filed a complaint about the matter, as did another attorney in his office, Dave Knutson. "I'm not after this woman's head, per se," explains McGee, referring to Norman. "I'm offended that a prosecutor could put in a motion and in a file this kind of thing. I would have found it offensive as a prosecutor. On a number of levels it was serious and offensive." (Anoka County Attorney Robert Johnson declines to discuss the complaints, saying that they are "a private matter between the [office] and an attorney." He does defend his office's track record with regard to diversity, noting that in a county that is predominantly white, two of his 80-plus staffers are minorities. Criminal division chief Weber did not return calls from City Pages.)

After looking into Holland's and Madden's concerns, the office dismissed the complaints against everyone but Norman. In a letter explaining why the complaint against Walden was not upheld, board member Steven Olson said discipline was unwarranted because she didn't write or file the motion, but had simply placed the controversial note in the file she passed on to Norman. "The reference to a '"token" African American public defender,' while offensive out of context, was clearly not made with reference to a specific individual," Olson wrote.

"The memorandum appears intended to simply record Ms. Walden's immediate reaction to a conversation with opposing counsel--it expresses her surprise and concern that defense counsel had decided to focus on race issues as central to Mr. Manuel's defense. The 'bias'--if indeed it can be so characterized--was directed at [Madden's] strategy, not at any person or race."

In Norman's case, however, the office concluded that her actions had been "serious," which under the board's rules meant that any punishment meted out would have to be public--rather than remaining confidential like most cases handled by the board. But first the case would have to be reviewed by the office's appointed oversight body, the Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board.

After conducting a closed-door hearing on the matter, a panel composed of three board members reversed the office's decision, deeming Norman's transgression "unprofessional," but also "isolated and nonserious." They admonished Norman privately, the least serious form of attorney discipline available in Minnesota.

Norman says she realized her motion was inappropriate the moment it was pointed out to her. "I fully acknowledge that I made a mistake, and I've said that all along," she concedes. But, beyond that, Norman says the admonition she received is private and she requested that City Pages not disclose her name. Like most news organizations, City Pages generally names parties involved in judicial proceedings.

Holland believes that keeping the case private missed the point of his complaint. "I would say our main goal was to expose racism and to have something done about it," he told the panel during its hearing. An official, public recognition that mistakes had been made, he argued, would serve as a benchmark for further discussion.

On a personal level, he added, he was offended by the suggestion that his presence on Manuel's defense team was viewed as "token." "I shouldn't have to reach in my wallet and show that I'm a member of the bar," he said. "I'm a lawyer. My involvement is [that] I'm going to try a case, and to presume that my purpose is something other than that is outrageous. It's unintentional, but I think it's racism."

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