Chief judge denies Hennepin County request to remove judge from all felony cases

Judge rules the prosecutor abused strikes in “going after” judge

By: - April 14, 2022 6:01 am

Hennepin County District Judge William Koch

The chief Hennepin County judge has denied a request by the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office to remove a judge from all felony cases.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman sent a notice to district court officials on Jan. 21 that his office wanted to ban Hennepin County District Judge William Koch from presiding over all felony cases. Freeman’s office then filed identical notices for every case assigned to Koch being prosecuted by his office. As of March 4, that amounted to 58 cases.

The Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office opposed the move, calling it a blanket removal, which is illegal under state law. 

Defense attorneys and prosecutors are allowed to request that a judge assigned to a specific case be removed without explanation.

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in 1999, however, that attorneys cannot abuse the privilege by making blanket filings against a specific judge. In that case, the Kandiyohi County Attorney’s Office tried to get a judge removed from the majority of criminal cases because prosecutors were unhappy with his ruling in a juvenile criminal case.

The Supreme Court found the office abused the rule, and suspended its removal privileges for six months. Targeting a judge in response to an adverse ruling, the court said, “does nothing to further the spirit of the rule, but instead strikes at the very heart of judicial independence, which is so essential in free society.”

Hennepin County District Court Chief Judge Toddrick Barnette ruled that the Hennepin County prosecutors’ removal notices were “similar if not the same” as Kandiyohi County’s back in 1999.

Barnette denied all of the prosecutors’ removal motions, finding that Freeman’s office used illegal blanket filings to remove Koch based on adverse rulings and “disrupted the court’s administration of justice.” 

He didn’t sanction the office, but said he would if any similar removal attempts are deemed blanket filings.

Freeman’s office had argued it was merely exercising its right to remove Koch without cause, not in response to any adverse ruling. It cited “examples of troubling demeanor and behaviors” that were “arrogant, dismissive, patronizing, condescending and disrespectful.”

In arguing their side, however, prosecutors cited dissatisfaction with Koch’s adverse rulings in criminal cases, Barnette wrote in his order.

“It is very apparent to this court that (the county attorney) does not like Judge Koch’s rulings and is attempting to remove him from the criminal division,” Barnette wrote.

Barnette also took note of a statement Freeman’s office gave to the Star Tribune “affirming its intent to go after Judge Koch,” when it said, “this office is undertaking more comprehensive removal… It is based on issues with the judicial temperament and decisions made by Judge Koch that appear based on arbitrary factors and not the law.”

Barnette wrote that the statement led him to conclude the county attorney’s objection to Koch isn’t about the judge’s personal demeanor.

Koch has been on the bench for more than 14 years after being appointed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2007. He was elected by voters in 2008, 2014 and 2020. His current term expires in 2027.

Koch is on a rotating team of 12 judges who handle felony cases, nearly all of which are charged by Hennepin County.

By removing him from all felony cases, “He will eventually end up not having any cases assigned to him,” Barnette wrote. That would increase caseloads for the other judges, who are already grappling with a huge backlog of cases due to the pandemic.

An affidavit filed by the chief deputy of Hennepin County’s criminal division, former judge Dan Mabley, sheds some light on why the prosecutors are unhappy with Koch.

Supervisors in the criminal divisions received a series of reports of “intemperate and inappropriate behavior” by Koch, according to Mabley’s affidavit. 

In response, Mabley said he watched Koch in court, and saw behavior consistent with the reports. He said he’s “generally aware” that prior managers of the prosecutors’ office “have addressed inappropriate behaviors with Judge Koch and bench management.”

Mabley — who noted in his affidavit that he was a Hennepin County judge from 1992 until 2018 and served two terms as chief judge — said he had been meeting with Barnette at least once per month since he assumed his job in the prosecutor’s office in July 2021. He said he conveyed “continuing complaints” about Koch’s behavior. He said he also conveyed that the prosecutor’s office was considering filing notices to remove Koch, and in late summer or early fall or 2021, he encouraged prosecutors to file notices to remove Koch from “important cases.”

In October 2021, more complaints were made about Koch’s behavior during a jury trial 

On Jan. 18, Mabley emailed Barnette, proposing that the chief judge accept a single “blanket removal” of Koch to “save everyone a lot of unnecessary work.” 

The prosecutors then collected reports from staff about the judge’s behavior, and that document is now under seal, and not available to the public.

St. Paul attorney Eric Rice finds it troubling that Mabley met privately with the chief judge to try to get Koch reassigned without notice or input from opposing parties, such as the public defender’s office. Such decisions shouldn’t be made in “secret, backroom proceedings,” he said.

Rice’s client, Jaleel Stallings, was allowed by Koch to claim self-defense in firing back at Minneapolis Police in 2020 after a SWAT team shot him with rubber bullets while he stood on Lake Street after curfew. Koch also was critical of MPD leadership in pre-trial orders, saying he feared their battlefield mindset was inciting officers’ inappropriate behavior toward the public.

Rice alleged that Mabley appears to be using his judicial background to try to influence Barnette.

“To me it looks like Hennepin County is trying to use the removal of Judge Koch to reshape the bench,” Rice said. “It appears extremely unseemly.”

Rice is also concerned that the prosecutor’s document outlining its concerns about Koch is hidden from public view.

“It’s under seal because the prosecution’s office is essentially trying to give Judge Koch a benefit by not revealing all of these alleged improprieties, but it robs the public of transparency,” he said.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.

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