I wrote about this race in the primary but wanted to revisit it, since I endorsed Elliot Nickell and he lost in the primary. I’ve been putting it off because I am genuinely torn.
On the ballot:
I normally vote for incumbents in judicial races. Appointed judges are heavily screened by the committee that makes recommendations to the governor; they look for people with solid credentials and weed out the Michelle MacDonaldses.
I have seen one judge up close, when I served on a jury in Ramsey County in 2016. That was Judge Castro, and he was terrific. He was smart and a good listener. Patient, but only up to a point; the defendant took the stand at one point and wanted to ramble on endlessly instead of answering the questions asked and Castro got increasingly sharp with the guy and his lawyer, because he was treating our time — the jury’s time — as valuable. He let us ask questions at the end of the trial (after we’d delivered our verdict and the courtroom had emptied out) and we asked, among other things, why this guy hadn’t been given a plea bargain, because it seemed like a genuinely odd case to go to trial. Judge Castro sighed heavily and said the guy had been offered a plea deal where he’d have gotten time served but he’d taken it to trial and we’d convicted him of a felony and the recommended sentence was now 2-3 years in prison. I looked up the defendant last week and if I read the page right (I’m not 100% sure I did — stuff coming out of the court system is frequently really hard to parse out) I think Judge Castro actually gave him a suspended sentence and probation instead of sending him to prison (which actually strikes me as reasonable), but he violated probation and is now in the workhouse.
So: smart, compassionate, fair.
The thing about electing judges that’s really different from electing anyone else is that I really am looking for skill-sets and personality traits, and those are really hard to spot from outside the system. (I mean, it’s not hard to present yourself as fair, open-minded, even-handed, etc.) Which is why I look so heavily to endorsements in judicial races.
Judge Atwal was arrested for drunk driving this past New Year’s Eve. His BAC was over twice the legal limit (and that was from a Breathalyzer test done two hours later!), and when he was pulled over and the police saw that he was drunk, he told them he was a judge and asked if they could just let him walk home.
I also got an e-mail from a reader saying he was creepy and inappropriate with women and frequently drunk in social situations.
Despite all this, he has a lot more (and significantly more prestigious) endorsements than Paul Yang. Judge Atwal’s endorsements include multiple retired Supreme Court judges; also five professors from Mitchell-Hamline Law School, which is where both Atwal and Yang went to law school. (Atwal graduated in 2003 from what was then William Mitchell, and Paul Yang graduated in 2002 from what was then Hamline. The two law schools merged in 2015.) Possibly it’s worth noting that Atwal has also taught at the law school as an adjunct so these people are his colleagues. He has a Ramsey County Commissioner and the (retired?) head of the Ramsey County Public Defender’s office. The lawyers who’ve endorsed him include a bunch of people who are partners at large firms.
Paul Yang is a solo practitioner who works part-time for the public defender’s office, and right off, I’m going to be honest, “solo practitioner” is a red flag for me. If you go to law school, usually what you want is to be hired by someone — a firm, a public defender’s office, an organization — and in many cases (I’m not going to say all), solo practitioners hung out a shingle because they couldn’t get anyone else to hire them.
Paul Yang has his own list of endorsements, which also has some red flags.
First, none of the people on the list are judges. I also see no former clients. There is one former law professor; it’s a woman who was fired from her job at Hamline after being found guilty of failure to file a tax return.
The lawyers listed, okay. There’s a woman who makes a really big deal out of being a “Christian lawyer.” Most of the people endorsing him look normal but also very similar to him — they’re combining a solo practice with part-time public defender work. (Some of them are apparently doing it pretty badly.) To be fair, I also spotted a couple of assistant County Attorneys. But there’s also a bunch of chiropractors. (I do not expect that a chiropractor, even a very good chiropractor, is going to have a lot of insight into whether someone will make a good judge.)
The red flags here are not huge, but they don’t fill me with confidence, either. And I do have some confidence that Atwal is decent on the bench.
But I also sent e-mail to Tony Atwal’s campaign asking a single question: does Judge Atwal still drink? I got back a 561-word-long, 10-paragraph response that does not answer that question. Here’s the first bit:
On New Year’s night, Judge Atwal was arrested for DWI in front of his home. Judge Atwal immediately pleaded guilty and accepted responsibility for this failure in his personal life. He received the same sentence that any other person in the same situation would receive. Judge Atwal completed medical evaluations and treatment and has complied with his probation conditions. Judge Atwal has fully accepted responsibility for his mistake and learned from it and made himself better. This life experience has been painful for Judge Atwal and his family. Judge Atwal is determined to not let this mistake define him as a person or as a judge.
The article I linked up top about his sentencing said the following:
According to court records, Hennepin County Judge Shereen Askalani, who is handling the case to avoid a conflict of interest, sentenced him to a year in the Ramsey County workhouse. She stayed 345 days for two years’ probation.
Atwal will have to serve 20 days on electronic home monitoring with work release, if eligible. He received two days’ credit for time served in the county jail after his arrest, and was released Tuesday.
Atwal’s probation requires him to undergo chemical dependency evaluation and treatment and to abstain from driving violations, among other conditions.
(Emphasis mine.) So — he had to get an evaluation, but the terms of his probation were not, “quit drinking.”
I mean, here’s the thing. If I were a judge who was running for re-election and had been arrested on a second DUI, even if I were 100% confident that I was not an alcoholic (and plenty of people get DUIs who aren’t, in fact, alcoholics; you don’t have to drink very much to be over the legal limit, although he was .17, more than twice over, which is like 7 or 8 drinks) — even if I were 100% sure that I did not have a problem with alcohol and the DUI was a fluke, I would at least take a vacation from drinking, you know?
So, there you have it. A guy who’s known to be a competent judge but who makes truly disastrous decisions about alcohol in his personal life… or a guy who’s been unable to rustle up any endorsements from judges, whose highlighted endorsement is a lawyer saying “don’t vote for the other guy because of the DUI.”
I am honestly undecided here.
(If you’re wondering about the other nine paragraphs of the e-mail from Atwal’s campaign: mostly just stuff about his background. He’s an immigrant from India, worked his way through law school, has done lots and lots of stuff that qualified him for this position.)