Harry's Gang: Court levels balance the scales
October 6, 2023
The Court of Appeals met in Duluth recently, and I was lucky to watch it and attend a reception afterwards, meeting all three of the Court of Appeal judges hearing the cases.
One of the cases involved the old Kozy Bar building in Duluth, as a group backed by one-time owner Eric Ringsred sued the city of Duluth, which had issued a demolition permit to have the building torn down. Regardless of how you feel about that eyesore in downtown Duluth or how much you miss having a beer and an argument at the old Kozy Bar, there’s a process the government must follow when demolishing any building. All sorts of laws, rules and regulations come into play, even when everyone agrees the building should be torn down. And when some people want to save the building, like the Duluth Preservation Alliance does, they have the right to force everyone to follow the law, when they feel the law hasn’t been followed correctly.
That’s why the court system exists — to resolve controversies. The most common level we use is the district court, which in our county is located in Carlton. There, two judges oversee thousands of cases every year, from simple ones such as speeding tickets to more complex ones involving civil and criminal jury trials. Occasionally, one side doesn’t agree with the judge’s decision and asks the Court of Appeals to review the case.
The Court of Appeals is what’s known as an error-correcting court. That means the court will decide if the district court judge made a mistake of some kind. Usually, the mistake is based on a judge’s interpretation of the law. For example, in a criminal case, it’s illegal to drive a car with too much alcohol in your system. But what if you are sitting in your car, in your own driveway, with the keys in your pocket? The judge may rule that under these circumstances, you are not driving your car. But the prosecutor believes the law says that as long as the keys are in your pocket, that’s considered “driving,” so they appeal. The Court of Appeals will review the case and all the supporting prior interpretations and decide if the judge made a mistake or not.
Sometimes, a party in a case feels the judge made the wrong decision about the facts of a case. For example, a tenant must be served with eviction papers at least seven days before the eviction trial. The landlord submits an affidavit that shows the papers were served on time. But you claim you didn’t get the papers until six days before the trial. The judge may listen to the evidence from both sides and make a decision: she believes you got the papers in time, and she allows the eviction to proceed. You feel the judge was wrong. If you appeal, the Court of Appeals might say, “the judge listened to the evidence and decided to believe the landlord. That’s within her discretion, and we won’t overrule a decision she makes based on her discretion.”
In the case I saw, the Court of Appeals hasn’t ruled yet, and none of the judges would tell me at the reception what direction they were leaning. Of course, I wasn’t really expecting them to tell me, as judges are pretty good about keeping their opinions to themselves until they are ready to issue a ruling. All three did mention that they had studied the briefs each side had submitted, and that they still have research to do before they could rule. That’s a good sign, because we don’t want judges who make decisions based on gut feelings and emotions. We want them to follow the law.
Once the Court of Appeals makes its decision, there’s one last option: the Minnesota Supreme Court. Unlike the Court of Appeals, you don’t have the right to have the Supreme Court hear your case. The justices on Minnesota’s highest court decide for themselves which cases they will hear, and reject most requests.
I’ve been in front of both courts several times in my career, and it is exciting. The Supreme Court once heard arguments at Cloquet High School, back before the auditorium was remodeled. Maybe they will return someday.