Election 2018: Ramsey County Judge, Court 20

There are three people running:

G. Tony Atwal (incumbent)
Elliott Nickell
P. Paul Yang

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.)




9 thoughts on “Election 2018: Ramsey County Judge, Court 20

  1. I fully understand your reservations about Tony Atwal. I can add that in reviewing his work history and his two DUIs it seemed likely to me that his problem with alcohol has been on-going. He was with the State Public Defender’s office for 8 years, then left in 2012 and spent time at two law firms until being appointed by Dayton 2016. As a lawyer myself, that strikes me as a red flag when combined with the two DUIs. That said, I have reached out to a friend with whom Atwal may have worked for more information, to see whether there are any counter-balancing facts. (I’ll add that he completely ignores the recent DUI and discipline on his campaign site. A bad decision on his part.)

    I completely disagree with you on Elliott Nickell. He’s been admitted to practice for ten years and his entire campaign seems to be nothing more than “Don’t re-elect a drunk!” He even uses Atwal’s mugshot on his own, extremely limited and poorly edited campaign site. He has no significant endorsements and offers no information from which one might conclude he is qualified for the bench. His professional website offers little beyond the fact that he has been a sole practitioner for the last 4 years, working in criminal law (primarily misdemeanor defense) and personal injury. All of the cases he describes on that site involved criminal charges and none of those appear to have gone to trial. The fact that he is not Atwal is no reason to put him on the bench.

    Sadly, I cannot see any reason to vote for P. Paul Yang, either. (Is there any reason you ignored him?) He has 15 years in practice, though I have been unable to identify any specific area of practice. My best guess is that he’s operated as a general practitioner on the East Side of St. Paul. His campaign appears to be largely targeted at the Hmong community, which could be enough to elect him given the relatively small number of people who vote in judicial elections. If one feels one must vote in this race, he may well be the best in a very weak field.

    • I believe that Atwal, Nickell, and Yang are running for the Judicial seat #20
      in the 2cnd District.

      And Egan, Flaherty, and Adam Yang are running for
      Judicial seat #11,
      in the 2cnd District.

  2. And now Nickell’s not even in the race anymore. Only Yang and Atwal made it through the primary. To me Yang’s the best candidate. I don’t how you all couldn’t find info on him but I found that he’s been a volunteer school board member for HOPE Community Academy since 2016. He serves as a board member for Yang Wang Meng USA and is also the legal advisor for Yang Wang Meng Minnesota since 2012. He has been an attorney since 2003. I mean Atwal, I don’t even know what to say about him. He got caught driving while intoxicated twice! I mean how many times DIDN’T they catch him?!?! In the end it’s your choice, my opinion and choice, Yang.

  3. FYI : The Ramsey County Bar Association members were asked to vote on the candidates.
    Seat 20
    G Tony Atwal, 63.1 percent (246 votes) of 390 total votes;
    P Paul Yang, 36.9 percent (144 votes) of 390 total votes.

    FYI : There is more than one Yang on the ballot (check out Seat 11)
    Scott M Flaherty, 58.2 percent (231 votes) of 397 total votes;
    Adam Yang, 41.8 percent (166 votes) of 397 total votes.

    Also, if you are concerned about judges receiving campaign contributions, they all appear to be getting a lot of family money
    Adam Yang https://cfb.mn.gov/rptViewer/Main.php?do=viewPDF
    Paul Yang https://cfb.mn.gov/rptViewer/Main.php?do=viewPDF
    Tony Atwal https://cfb.mn.gov/rptViewer/Main.php?do=viewPDF

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