The Hennepin County attorney isn’t giving up on striking a judge from all its felony cases

Freeman releases more details about prosecutors’ concerns about judge William Koch

By: - May 4, 2022 6:00 am

Hennepin County District Judge William Koch

The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office is again trying to get a judge removed from its felony cases, appealing a ruling by the chief judge, who ruled the effort was improper. 

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s office said in a filing that they tried to handle the situation “delicately,” but are now again pushing to remove Hennepin County District Judge William Koch from felony cases due to “troubling demeanor and behaviors.”

Defense attorneys are alarmed by the county attorney’s effort to remove a judge perceived to be rigorous in his dealings with prosecutors.

The Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office has opposed Freeman’s move to strike Koch from cases, calling it a blanket removal, which is illegal. Hennepin County District Court Chief Judge Toddrick Barnette agreed, saying the prosecutors’ move was “similar if not the same” as prosecutors’ in a 1999 case that prompted the Minnesota Supreme Court to rule that attorneys cannot abuse the privilege to strike judges by making blanket filings against specific judges.  

Freeman described Koch’s demeanor as “arrogant, dismissive, patronizing, condescending and disrespectful — especially to women.”

Freeman first notified district court officials in January that he wanted to ban Koch. Barnette denied the request, and now Freeman’s office is trying to block enforcement of the order and have it reviewed.

In a recent filing, Freeman and the chief deputy of Hennepin County’s criminal division, former district judge Dan Mabley, wrote that they want Koch removed based on “inappropriate conduct and behavior, which compromised the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office’s responsibility to ensure its employees’ workplace environment is appropriate, respectful, and fair.”

A spokesman for Koch said, “Since this is an ongoing case, we are unable to provide a comment at this time.” 

The prosecutors previously filed an affidavit by Mabley under seal — meaning it’s not open to the public — detailing “a long-term pattern of inappropriate conduct.” But in the recent filing, Freeman released more details about that conduct, saying he’s “concerned that Judge Koch’s behaviors resulted in attorneys’ high stress levels, poor work environments, and a frustration of the administration of justice.”

Freeman said Koch sometimes abandons his role as a neutral party in court and acts like an advocate and routinely interrupts attorneys’ examination of witnesses and takes over questioning, even when the defendant is on the witness stand.

He said Koch is “frequently inappropriate with females in his courtroom, including attorneys and probation officers.” In one case, Freeman said Koch insulted a pregnant prosecutor when discussing scheduling. The incident was reported to the Board of Judicial Standards, but Freeman said it appears no discipline was issued.

Freeman noted he has a statutory duty to provide a safe and secure workplace that is free from hostile behavior. He “attempted to handle this situation delicately,” he wrote, sending a chief criminal deputy and chief civil deputy to observe Koch in the courtroom, but “even with top leadership present, concerning behavior was observed.”

Freeman’s attempts to handle the situation have been “stonewalled at every turn,” he wrote, and as a last resort, he decided he can’t allow his attorneys to “continue being abused while simply trying to do their jobs.” 

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

In the Supreme Court case, the Kandiyohi County Attorney’s Office tried to get a judge removed from most criminal cases over nearly 3.5 years because prosecutors were unhappy with his ruling in a juvenile delinquency case.

The Supreme Court found Kandiyohi County abused the rule and suspended its removal privileges for six months.

Barnette previously denied Freeman’s motion and found his office used illegal blanket filings to remove Koch because they didn’t like his rulings. Their attempt at a blanket removal “disrupted the court’s administration of justice,”he said. He didn’t sanction the office, but warned he would if any similar removal attempts were deemed blanket filings.

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, Barnette said Koch would end up without any cases, increasing other judges’ already heavy caseloads, thanks to a pandemic-induced backlog.

Freeman argued in his recent filing that Koch could be moved to any other division without burdening other judges.

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 term expires in 2027.

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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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