Delinquency. Substance abuse. Mental illness. Hurt. Hope. Tears. Four hours with the children and adults of Courtroom 2.
Olmsted County District Court is in session.
Over the course of a single week, the seven courtrooms of Olmsted County District Court—presided over by seven judges—may hear anywhere from 400 to 500 individual cases, or more. And because it’s a “general jurisdiction” court, those cases may range from parking violations to first-degree murder.
On this particular Friday morning, Judge Kevin Lund is scheduled to hear 11 cases in Courtroom 2.
And so, it happens, am I.
It’s nearly 9 a.m. when I reach the entrance of the fifth-floor courtroom. As I ease open the door, I spot Judge Lund—in a black robe with a hint of a shirt and tie peeking out the top—presiding from the corner of a formidable, L-shaped desk.
“Mrs. Koski,” he says as I enter. “Take a seat up here.”
It’s library quiet as I approach the bench. One man sits at a table in the center of the room, fidgeting with his shirtsleeve. Two women—court assistant Deb Yetzer and court reporter Lisa Olgren—work to Judge Lund’s right and left. I walk to what I consider the witness stand, step up to the seat, and sit.
Courtroom 2 is typically earmarked for juvenile and mental health cases. Today that primarily translates into a grab bag of delinquency, truancy, and recommitment hearings. If we’re lucky, says Judge Lund, we’ll be done by noon.
I’m here to observe. To observe, and witness the human stories behind the statistics. To see if there’s a greater story to tell, behind terms like “respondent” and “plaintiff,” behind “caseload” and “jurisdiction.”
As I settle into my seat and reach for my notebook, two people—an attorney and a social worker—enter the courtroom and sit at the table adjacent to the fidgeting, shirtsleeve man.
Judge Lund says, “We’re ready to begin.”
CASE ONE: “That doesn’t diminish my respect for you”
A balding man, with thin, flyaway hair over his ears—we’ll call him David—sits at a table in the right center of the room. He wears dark framed glasses, and a plaid, button-up shirt over a threadbare T-shirt. He’s in his late 50s, or maybe his 60s. It’s hard to tell if the lines etched on his face are from age or hard living.
He has been staying, by court order, in an assisted-living facility for a period of time. That order is nearly up, and David is here today to request to live independently. (Recommitment hearings, such as these, Judge Lund will tell me later, are designed for “folks who can use additional supervision and assistance living in the community. … [They are] some of the most important work we do.”)
Judge Lund discusses the particulars of David’s stay with the assistant county attorney and social worker. He then asks David about his experience, and about a recent incident—an arrest for public drunkenness—at Quarry Hill Park.
“I fell off the wagon, but that was just one time,” David says. “I’m better now.”
“We’ve known each other a long time,” says Judge Lund. “How long?”
“I don’t know,” the man says. “Twenty, thirty years.”
They talk about history. They talk about substance abuse. They talk about what success means.
“I can live alone,” David says, determined. “I’m not going back there.”
“We can find you a safe, dignified place to live,” says Judge Lund.
“I don’t think you understand,” David says, shaking his head.
“I understand life’s fragile and I want to keep you safe,” says Judge Lund. “That doesn’t diminish my respect for you.”
The man nods. “OK,” he says. “OK.”
Martin, a man in his late 20s or early 30s, takes the seat vacated by David. He holds a small, stuffed teddy bear, and squeezes it rhythmically with both hands. His fiancée sits behind him, to the left, in the gallery observer benches. At a table next to him, an assistant county attorney and a social worker shuffle papers and whisper to themselves.
Martin tells Judge Lund that he’s aware of his diagnosis—schizophrenia—and what it means. He says that he wants to get better.
“You were recently in treatment at Generose?” asks Judge Lund. “Came out Wednesday?”
“Man, they treated me so nice,” he tells Judge Lund. “I’ve never been treated so nice. They let me use a laptop, a phone. They got a recliner for my girlfriend.”
A man in a sweater vest steps into the courtroom from a side door. He addresses the respondent, Martin, directly. “There’s updated information I just received,” he says. “Can I speak to you outside for a few minutes?”
Martin looks frightened. He holds the teddy bear closer to his chest.
“It’s OK,” the sweater vested man says as he leads Martin out of the room. “It’s good.”
The attorney and social worker talk quietly among themselves. Judge Lund exchanges paperwork with the court assistant, Deb. I pour myself a glass of water from a pitcher at my desk.
Martin returns to the table without his bear. He tells Judge Lund that he agrees to continue treatment.
“You made a good decision today,” Judge Lund says. “I hope to see you out in the community.”
CASE THREE: “Terminate jurisdiction”
The courtroom’s empty; the petitioner—a man who’d landed in treatment at Generose while passing through Rochester—is a no-show. He’s due for a check-in after his initial hearing the previous week. He’s out of state, says an assistant county attorney. He’s back on the East Coast, and in good hands. She asks that the court “dismiss the order, terminate jurisdiction, and close the file.” Approved.
CASE FOUR: “Three would be three too many”
Judge Lund asks to see the girls one at a time. The younger sister dances out of the courtroom while the older, Regina, jumps into a seat at the table. Her mom, a small, thin woman with her hair pulled tight against her head, puts her hands flat on the table and looks down at her lap.
Judge Lund asks Regina how she’s doing—about her classes and relationships, about whether she’s going to school. Regina’s mom’s eyes remain closed through their conversation. She opens them when Judge Lund addresses her.
“How do you think Regina is doing?” he asks.
“She is doing much better at home,” she says, looking down at her hands.
Judge Lund asks Regina about her activities. “Do you have summer school in place?” he asks. “How about extracurriculars? We can hook you up with extracurriculars.”
The younger sister, Kareena, enters the courtroom to replace Regina at the table. Kareena looks to be 15, or maybe 16. But she’s only 13, still in middle school.
“She is working on limiting her verbal insults to three a day,” her social worker says. This is down from 100. It’s progress, he says.
“In my family,“ Judge Lund says, “Three would be three too many.”
He asks Kareena’s mom for her take. “I feel sad sometimes,” she says. “Because I know how sweet she can be.”
He asks Kareena about her interests. They talk about dance and theater, about an upcoming school talent show. “We can help you with that,” Judge Lund says. “We can do that.”
The girls agree to return to court in three weeks.
CASE FIVE: “Please help me”
Judge Lund gets Dr. Baker, the medical team lead, on the phone for expert testimony.
Dr. Baker makes his case. Ken, he says, has severe depressive illness. He is anguished. He’s hardly communicating—using only a 12-word vocabulary that includes phrases like, “please help me” and “you’re the dumb one.” He’s combative. He requires restraints. He eats his own stool.
They’ve tried several treatments, explains Dr. Baker. Some didn’t work enough. Some didn’t work at all. Some made Ken more agitated. Some caused unpleasant side effects.
Dr. Baker recommends 6 to 12 treatments of ECT. He says it can work where medications can’t.
Judge Lund thanks Dr. Baker for the information. Then he turns to Laura. “Dr. Baker’s confidence tells me this will help Ken,” he says. “ I approve the request.”
She nods, says “thank you.” It’s the first thing she’s said since the session began.
CASE SIX: “I have to make decisions as if you were a family member”
He requests that Jessica continue the mental health services she’s been undergoing in a residential setting.
Jessica is not on board. She believes she can live successfully on her own. She’s been hearing voices, yes, but less frequently—and they go away when she sticks to her medication schedule.
Judge Lund listens quietly. “You’re doing so much better. I’m really proud that you’re working hard,” he says. “I have to make decisions as if you were a family member—you are, in fact, the age of one of my sons. And I believe the best thing for you right now is to stay where you are.”
She looks down at the table in front of her. She nods.
CASE SEVEN: “Let’s keep seeing that progress”
“I’m glad to see you come in that door instead of the detention door this time,” says Judge Lund.
“Yes, sir,” the boy, Jacob, answers.
“When you were here on Monday, I let you go home on one condition,” says Judge Lund. “That you work on your safety plan and services so things would get better.”
“Yes, sir,” Jacob says.
“And how is that going?” asks Judge Lund.
Jacob’s parents tell Judge Lund that there’s a safety plan in place so incidents like those that happened last week won’t happen again.
The public defender offers her assessment: She says Jacob needs to change his behavior, do a better job of listening, and work on following rules at home and at school. She says services are in place, and Jacob has good intentions of not visiting the detention center again.
“I’m proud of you in that regard,” says Judge Lund, then schedules another court date for the family. “Let’s keep seeing that progress,” he says.
CASE EIGHT: “That’s a difficult and mature decision to make”
Olivia, a 17-year-old girl in an orange jumpsuit, enters from the door to my left—via the juvenile detention center. Led by a deputy, she shuffles to the table, her ankles in shackles and wrists in chains.
She’s been in custody since last Friday—one week ago today. At the table, she’s joined by a public defender, a social worker, and a man in a baseball cap—her father.
Judge Lund asks the public defender a few questions, then addresses Olivia directly. She wants to finish her GED, she says. She wants to live with her dad. She wants to make better choices.
They talk about recovery options. Olivia has been to five inpatient and seven outpatient facilities, and nearly as many halfway houses. Judge Lund says she has to commit to recovery.
Olivia agrees to outpatient treatment, then pauses and says she has another request.
“What is that?” asks Judge Lund.
She’d like Judge Lund to make a no-contact order with her mom.
“That’s a difficult and mature decision to make,” he says, after a pause. “That’s a good decision. I’m glad that request came from you—that you are the one making it. You went off track for a while, but you’re young enough to get back on the tracks. You can do this.”
CASE NINE: “You’ve got to trust us”
A 15-year-old boy named Kamal slouches at the table, his eyes practiced on the floor. His parents, a school administrator, an assistant county attorney, and a social worker surround him.
“Kamal feels like he’s doing better,” says the social worker. His parents and the school administrator disagree.
The administrator speaks first. Kamal is not participating, she says. He is skipping school. He is sleeping in class. He is spending time with peers who are not good for him. He is not getting an education.
“When was his last missed class?” Judge Lund asks.
The administrator refers to a stack of papers in front of her. “Yesterday, third hour,” she says. “He missed three classes the day before.”
“Kamal’s parents have proposed a solution,” says the social worker.
“He has been accepted into a private school in Michigan,” says Kamal’s father. He explains that Kamal’s uncle lives there—that he can go to this school, and get away from the influences here.
Kamal continues to stare at the floor.
The social worker says, “Kamal is angry and wants one more chance.”
Kamal’s arms are crossed as the social worker talks about his chemical abuse, his lack of healthy social activities. His suspensions and tardies, his Ds and Fs.
“How do we take care of these problems?” his dad asks Judge Lund. “He doesn’t listen. We say, ‘You cannot go out’ and he just goes out, anyway. He does not come home after school. We do not know where he is. We have to make a decision to save our son. We have to make this decision.”
Judge Lund listens, then turns to Kamal and asks what he wants.
“I want to stay here,” he says to the floor. “I want to stay at my school.”
“Here’s what’s going to happen,” says Judge Lund. “You are to have no unexecused absences. You are to have no tardies. You are to follow the rules at home. You are to have a chemical dependency consult.”
Kamal glances at Judge Lund as he pauses.
“Kamal,” he says. “When you take the drug test today when you leave this courtroom, will it test positive for marijuana?”
“Yes,” the boy says.
“Remove that from your life and I assure you that life will get better for you.”
Kamal nods, but doesn’t make eye contact.
“You can control this situation by following the rules,” says Judge Lund. “If you do not follow the rules, your parents will take the next step and send you to school in Michigan.”
Kamal looks at the table, stone faced.
“We’re trying to make life a little easier for you,” says Judge Lund. “You’ve got to trust us.”
CASE TEN: “I’m just trying to move forward”
A 17-year-old girl who looks 27 sits alone at the table, without a parent. Appearing for delinquency and theft, she tells Judge Lund about changes since she saw him last. She talks about her jobs—one as a waitress, another in retail.
She looks Judge Lund in the eyes, concentrates on what he says. She’s polite and eager to please, but there’s a heaviness about her—a weight of living a life beyond her years. I will learn, later, that she was recently the victim of a violent crime.
“I’m just trying to move forward,” she says.
Judge Lund recommends she quit her waitressing job. It’s at a bar, he points out, which isn’t a healthy or safe place for her to be. He tells her she can have no contact with a man named Mark. She agrees, and tells the judge she hasn’t seen that man in weeks. That she won’t see him.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Judge Lund says, before she leaves. “You know what I mean by that? I’m glad you’re here.”
She nods. Looks down. “Thank you, your honor,” she says.
CASE ELEVEN: “This is a critical time in your life”
A teenage boy, Nathan, sits at the table. He has blonde, curly hair and glasses. His mother, a wisp of a woman, sits next to him in a cardigan she’s pulled tightly across her chest even though it’s warm. Her eyes are rimmed in red.
Nathan’s charges include aggravated robbery, marijuana possession, and motor vehicle charges. He tells Judge Lund in a tight voice that he wants to continue to be seen in juvenile court.
Judge Lund tells them that will they do a certification study to determine whether he will be seen as an adult or juvenile going forward. Then he starts doling out restrictions: Nathan is to have no access to social media. No driving without approval of his probation officer. No contact with a lengthy list of very specific people.
“No one can come to your house,” Judge Lund says. “You are to take part in no activities considered to be gang related. You are to continue the outpatient treatment you’ve started.
“Yes, sir,” the boy says after each directive. “Yes, sir.”
Judge Lund continues: Nathan is to attend Youth Night Campus on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Therapy, a minimum of one day a week. A treatment program. A sobriety program. An educational plan.
“Yes, sir,” the boy says, fighting back tears until he can’t any longer.
“This is a critical time in your life and the things being set up are in your best interest,” says Judge Lund.
“Yes, sir,” he says.
It’s ten minutes to 1 p.m. We’re nearly an hour past our noon end time.
“He takes a lot of time with the kids,” Lisa, the court reporter, whispers to me. “He always goes longer than the others.”
I nod. The door has just closed on Nathan’s case, and I’m still thinking about him. I want his programs to work. I want this boy—all of the kids we’ve seen today—to come out intact, healthy, contributing.
Is it possible? We’ve just heard 11 cases for 12 people from myriad backgrounds—six of them juveniles facing repeat visits. Is it possible to maintain hope in the face of that? Day after day, session after session?
It’s a question I need answered. I look at my notes—pages of delinquencies, mental illnesses, broken families—but the answer isn’t in them
“Have you become cynical?” I ask Judge Lund. “Do you really still have hope for these kids?”
“I do have hope,” he says. “Most of the young people I see here, their lives have been chaotic—they have mental health, chemical, poverty issues. You have to approach them from a standpoint of propping them up. They come in cocky, but most have no self-confidence. There’s a lack of a safety net for these young people.”
Can court be their safety net?
“There’s a term—parens patriae—that’s Latin, and it means the role of the judge is a parental role,” says Judge Lund. “I take that seriously. I’ve seen a lot of families throw up their hands and disappear. I see 16-17 year olds who have been abandoned.”
But doesn’t he get tired?
Yes, he does. He talks of empathy fatigue—of needing those breaks. But, he adds, social justice doesn’t fit in a cubicle. “If I can connect with two to three of them out of 10, that’s incredible.”
Witnessing the host of advocates, attorneys, social workers, administrators, and parents working for these kids and adults today, it seems possible. No matter what happens outside these walls— here, they are heard. Here, they sit among people who believe in them.
It would be easy, as an observer, to make snap judgments about their decisions, about their families, about their futures. But I think about what officer Ellie Umpierre said in 2013, during an interview about what she’s learned on the job as a lieutenant at Rochester Police Department.
“Addiction, drugs, alcohol, mental illness can make a person’s life difficult,” she said at the time. “… We have to remember that this is a single moment in this person’s life. We all suffer from the human condition at times—and who this person is on their worst day rarely defines who they are most days.”
I’ve witnessed both good and bad days today, challenges and successes, hurt and hope. And there is, indeed, a story to write.
* All names in this story, except for those of courtroom staff, have been changed in consideration of privacy and safety.
Illustrations by Ken Avidor