There are three people running:
There’s basically one question in this race, or maybe two.
- Does a DUI — and also pulling the “I’m a judge, officer, maybe just let me walk home?” card — disqualify someone from serving as a judge?
- Even if you otherwise really like them?
(Editing to add: turns out there are some additional questions!)
P. Paul Yang has a website but it says almost nothing about why you’d vote for him and doesn’t give you any of the key background on the incumbent, so I’m not inclined to take him super seriously.
Judge Atwal kicked off the New Year by getting pulled over drunk a little before 1 a.m. on January 1st. Initially he was pulled over for speeding and running a stop sign, then failed all the sobriety tests, then tried to talk the police officer into just letting him walk home, adding “I’m Judge Atwal from Ramsey County.” His blood alcohol level was .17. (The legal limit is .08.)
A local conservative blogger raised the question of whether he got special treatment because he went from arrest to sentencing so quickly, but apparently if you’re arrested for DUI, and you want to just plead guilty, you can have your lawyer contact the prosecutor and go from mug shot to supervised release within two days. He was sentenced to a stayed prison sentence and supervision. This was actually his second DUI (the first was in 2007). He was also reprimanded by the Judicial Standards board, and reassigned to juvenile court.
Something I will note about DUIs is that they’re a lot more common than most law-abiding people entirely realize. When I was on a jury (with a different judge) in 2016, one of the questions during Voir Dire was whether we’d ever been in trouble with the law. The judge specified that we did not need to raise our hand for speeding tickets, but anything more than that, including DUIs, we needed to disclose. A whole bunch of hands went up. Probably 9/10 were DUIs. And it’s not super surprising because the vast majority of American adults drink, and the vast majority of American adults drive, and most people will drive after they’ve drunk a little bit (like, one beer, at dinner…) and because the very first thing alcohol impairs is your judgment about your own level of impairment… but this was his second DUI. You would think that if someone has had a DUI before, they would stop themselves before driving home after a bunch of beer and a couple of gin and tonics on New Year’s. You know, when all the cops are out looking for drunk drivers. You would think.
(You’d also think he’d drive the speed limit and be careful about stop signs, but that’s one of the other really wild things about alcohol’s effects on you. This is why people who are stoned off their ass are statistically safer drivers than people who are intoxicated but under the legal limit — the stoned people think, “oh shit, I am super stoned! I had better drive really slowly because my reaction time probably sucks right now!” Whereas the drunk people are all, “I got this!” when they very definitely don’t.)
So, on to why you might want to vote for him anyway.
In the wake of Philando Castile’s shooting, there was a large protest that blocked I-94, and 46 protesters were arrested and charged with third-degree rioting (which I think is a gross misdemeanor), as well as misdemeanor public nuisance and unlawful assembly. Judge Atwal threw out the riot charges. “Ramsey County Judge G. Tony Atwal said Wednesday that there was no evidence the 46 defendants had thrown anything at police and that simply being at the protest doesn’t constitute rioting.” Later in 2017, Atwal accepted a guilty plea to the public nuisance/unlawful assembly charges from some of the protesters (I think from the same group, but I’m not sure). He sentenced them each to one year of probation, and:
The gentle-mannered Judge Atwal commended the protesters for fighting for social progress, and encouraged them not to be swayed by criticism — which, in the wake of news about their protests, came in the form of numerous online threats calling for them to be run over.
“We as the United States still have a long way to go,” he said. “I do understand why you did what you did.”
Atwal also offered some criticism of his own. He cautioned protesters that police are first to be called when people are in danger, and that the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee the right to protest anywhere, at any moment.
Atwal advised the protesters to reach out to people with differing opinions so that society could move forward in unity, because the answer to changing the world “likely lies somewhere in the middle.”
I really want more people like this on the bench, especially right now.
So despite the fact that I find the DUI appalling, I will probably still vote for him. (Edited: or not, based on additional information, keep reading.)
That said, Elliott Nickell looks like he’s fine. He’s a practicing attorney. He ran for City Council a few years back. He doesn’t appear to be a conservative (his social media suggests he’s a DFLer) or a religious whackjob of whatever stripe. If you’d rather not have a convicted drunk driver on the bench, that’s legit, and you should vote for Elliott Nickell.
Edited to add: a friend of a friend who was arrested during a BLM protest said that Elliott Nickell took her case pro bono. “He was professional, very personable and validating of my experience, and I’d recommend him highly as a judge.”
And editing again: A woman who reads my blog got in touch with me to say that her experience with Tony Atwal is that he’s creepy, and that this is a common sense among a number of women she knows; he hired only pretty blonde women to work as his clerks; he was on Tinder as a judge until someone talked sense into him; every time she’s seen him in a social setting, he’s been drunk; and he’s cornered her inappropriately while drunk.
I want to note that she said he was creepy, but added that he was not an outright harasser to her knowledge and she didn’t think he’d engaged in any “‘me too’ conduct.” What I take from this is that he hits on women in ways that are inappropriate, but not actionable.
I have run into countless men like this. Every woman has. Even women who’ve never been harassed — and I know a few — have certainly spent time around That Guy who somehow always brings the conversation back around to his dick, or who constantly asks baristas and waitresses for their phone numbers, or who sidles drunkenly up to colleagues to stand too close and say “nice necklace” while staring right at their chests. (These are not examples that are specific to Tony Atwal: I have no idea if he’s creepy in these specific ways, just to be clear.)
And you know, what I am really tired of men like this being in positions of power. In addition to being obnoxious and predatory, it demonstrates really terrible judgment.
The DUI, and ongoing drunken behavior that makes it really clear that the DUI was not a fluke, also demonstrates really terrible judgment.
If you’re voting in Ramsey County, vote for Elliott Nickell.
(Editing a final time: someone noted I forgot to even talk about P. Paul Yang. That’s because he has a website but there’s almost no information about him on it so I didn’t take him particularly seriously as a candidate.)