Take It Up with the Judge

Judge Harvey Ginsberg seems to have a little anger problem

The September 7 edition of the Star Tribune carried a story about Judge Harvey Ginsberg's last day on the bench. The way the story played it, Ginsberg, a 13-year veteran of the Hennepin County bench, spent his day on June 12 sentencing a babysitter for killing an 8-month-old boy left in her care. According to the article's unattributed opening paragraphs, he'd examined several gruesome photos of the baby on life support and listened as relatives poured out their grief.

Then he went home, learned his son's bike had been stolen, and lost his cool. He tracked down the boys he thought had taken the bike and wound up slapping a 14-year-old. The day after the June incident, Ginsberg went on medical leave; two months later, he pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor assault. According to a statement he issued at the time, he'd received treatment for stress and anxiety and "unfortunately, the results of those efforts have been less than we hoped for."

Strictly speaking, the story was accurate. But if the paper had probed a little deeper, it might have unearthed a series of once-confidential complaints lodged against Ginsberg a year earlier with state ethics watchdogs. Even in its own archives it would have found material suggesting that, stressful job or not, Ginsberg's temper has landed him in hot water several times over the last two decades.

The distinction between a judge who lost his temper due to a hard day on the bench and a judge who just plain has a temper problem is important: Ginsberg recently asked Gov. Tim Pawlenty to grant him early retirement at age 50 with a medical disability pension. And while the attorneys, clerks, and other workers who have spent time in Ginsberg's courtroom over the years are reluctant to speak publicly about a sitting judge, privately some say they are unwilling to support his petition.

Ginsberg says he's taken responsibility for his mistakes, and believes the outstanding issues are medical. "It was the sentencing of a woman who had killed an eight-month-old child that ultimately led to my decision to apply for retirement," he says in response to written questions submitted by City Pages. "It was the culmination of years of difficulty and despondency. I prepared a request for a leave that day. I was going to deliver it to the chief judge when he returned from an out-of-town trip. Unfortunately, that same day was the day my son's bike was stolen. I'm not proud of what I did, and stood up and took the consequences.

"The request for a medical retirement is not based on my perceived temper or personality," he says. "It is based upon over 10 years of increasingly significant anxiety, stress, and depression. It is a medical issue. It is not a political or personality issue. It is documented with medical records going back nine years. Others have tried to make this political and personal. Shame on me for not trying to get help for what was happening to me earlier. Shame on them for stooping so low."

There is no question that judges are under tremendous pressure to clear dockets clogged by impossible numbers of cases and that they earn less than many of their private-sector cohorts. To add insult to injury, they must campaign every six years just to keep these elected positions. But at the same time, judges are among the most powerful public figures around, wielding absolute authority over the fate and freedom of those who come before them. If the complaints against Ginsberg are accurate, landing in the wrong judge's courtroom on the wrong day can be a frightening proposition.

The state Board on Judicial Standards is currently considering several complaints against Ginsberg stemming from cases he heard in May and June of 2002 at Hennepin County's Ridgedale "satellite" court. According to one complaint, 66-year-old Dorothy Stalnaker appeared before Ginsberg on Tuesday, May 2, charged with driving around a police barricade in Minnetonka. When Ginsberg called Stalnaker's case, he allegedly commented that she didn't "look like the type of person who would drive around police barricades," unilaterally dismissed the charge against her, suggested that the people in the courtroom give her clean driving record a round of applause, and finally handed Stalnaker, who appeared confused, a few dollars to buy herself a cup coffee.

Ginsberg admits dismissing the charge and giving the woman money, but says the applause was spontaneous. He notes that the prosecutor present did not object to the dismissal at the time.

A week or so later, on May 10, a prosecutor representing Minnetonka, Gina Brandt, and defense attorney Rachael Goldberger were prepared to present Ginsberg with a plea agreement in the case of Jonathon Guyer, who was charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty. When Guyer's turn came, Ginsberg began to read the case documents. Instead of accepting the plea, according to the ethics complaint, Ginsberg, referring to Guyer, "stated words to the effect of 'Let's kill him.'" The judge then demanded to see Guyer and his attorney in chambers, where he also summoned three deputies.

"Upon the deputies' arrival in Judge Ginsberg's chambers, Judge Ginsberg ordered Mr. Guyer to pick one and told Mr. Guyer that he was going to order the deputy to take off his gun, go into a locked cell alone with Mr. Guyer and fight," the complaint states. "Mr. Guyer initially declined to pick a deputy, stating: 'I don't want to sir.' Judge Ginsberg then screamed, 'pick one.'" Ignoring the plea agreement, Ginsberg went on to schedule a trial.

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