Under Color of Law

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

 

Holland and Madden appealed the panel's decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which in July issued an opinion that struck an unusual compromise. Unlike the board, the justices concluded that the incident was an ethical infraction: Her motion "came precariously close to infringing on [Manuel's] right to be represented by counsel of his choice," the unsigned opinion read. "Such conduct, even if grounded in ignorance and poor judgment rather than malice, is unacceptable."

The justices also said the panel had been wrong to characterize the episode as isolated: "Racism," they added, "whether it takes the form of an individual's overt bigotry or an institution's subtle apathy, is, by its very nature, serious."

Nonetheless, the justices concluded, there was no need to punish Norman by exposing her to scrutiny; the court's opinion would be released to the public, but the individuals involved would be identified only by their initials.

"I'm disappointed that the supreme court didn't come out stronger," Holland says. "It's not that I wanted them to step on this woman, but I felt this would have been an excellent opportunity to follow through with everything they've said and done with the Racial Bias Task Force study"--a 1993 survey of discrimination in Minnesota courts. "What they've effectively done is say, 'Yes, this is wrong, but we can't talk about it.' It's typical Minnesota," he adds. "Joe Average Lawyer isn't going to read that opinion--and that's too bad, because that attitude is prevalent through the state."

Ed Cleary, director of the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility, disagrees. "I think the reason the court did what it did was to educate," he says. "Frankly, the names aren't all that important. What's important is the message. If you're going to use [the case] for educational purposes, you need an opinion. And that's what the court did."

As for William Manuel--the man whose $15 check set off the whole imbroglio--it appears that the ethics complaint, in a roundabout way, saved him from going to trial on the robbery charge. Because the ethics investigation presented Anoka prosecutors with a conflict of interest, they eventually sent the case to Hennepin County, which declined to charge him with anything. Holland says Manuel learned of the decision only when he showed up for a court appearance. Neither Holland nor Madden knows where to find him, so, they say, it's safe to assume Manuel has no idea of the legal tempest set off by the incident in the Timber Lodge Steakhouse parking lot.

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