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On today’s ballot: After reprimand, 4 candidates vie for district judge position

In the 7th Judicial District, which includes Becker County, incumbent Judge Steven J. Cahill faces three challengers: Cheryl R. Duysen, an assistant Clay County attorney; Terry Graff, a Social Security disability attorney, and Kenneth Kohler, an attorney with the Vogel Law Firm.

A rare reprimand

Judge Cahill likely has more than the usual number of challengers because earlier this year he was hit with an 18-count reprimand by the Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards.

In addition to a bad habit of showing up late to court, Cahill was reprimanded for essentially ignoring established law in several cases and ruling the way he felt was right.

In one case he helped prevent a possible deportation by imposing a gross misdemeanor sentence in a felony burglary case.

In another, a National Guard employee who pleaded guilty to violating a restraining order got a stay of adjudication, over the prosecution’s objection, because the judge knew he would otherwise lose the right to handle firearms, and would lose his job.

The judge allowed a Clay County man to put on a cross-country motorcycle race without allowing the county to argue its case that the man did not have the necessary permits.

He also has done some unusual things.

On Thanksgiving Day 2012, the judge decided to stop by the Clay County jail and grant a 24-hour furlough to a prisoner. The prisoner, who thought it was some kind of mistake, declined to leave.

After a woman brought an action to register title to a mobile home, Judge Cahill left the title sitting on his desk for five months, then attempted several times to deliver it to her home in person.

In August of 2012 the board served noticed to Cahill that he was under the microscope for issues that included chronic tardiness. He nevertheless continued to be late for court over the next three months, including nearly every court date in December.

On several occasions, Judge Cahill was also disrespectful to court staff. Cahill agreed to stop being tardy, find a mentor, and take action to resolve other issues.

But even two years later, after a follow-up session with the board, he remained independent-minded.

“Judge Cahill asserts that his guiding principle ‘is to always try to do the right thing, unless the right thing is clearly prohibited by law,’” the board wrote in a memorandum to its reprimand. “Judge Cahill’s actions in the matters noted above were clearly prohibited by law. In some instances … Judge Cahill could have accomplished any legitimate objectives by going through proper legal procedures.

In other instances, the ‘right thing’ to do in a particular situation has been decided by the Legislature or the appellate courts, and Judge Cahill was required to follow  their directives.’”

Judge Cahill was appointed to the bench by Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2006. Prior to that, he worked at the Cahill Law Office for 25 years.

He belongs to a half-dozen professional organizations, and is active in several civic and community roles.

Here is a look at the other candidates in the race, in no particular order:

Ken Kohler

Attorney Ken Kohler of Moorhead graduated from Hamline School of Law.  He is a member of the Vogel Law firm, and has practiced criminal law for over 30 years.

He appears in all district courts in northwest Minnesota and North Dakota, as well as federal courts, drug and juvenile courts.

According to his website, Kohler began his legal career as an assistant county attorney working extensively with law enforcement personnel. He both prosecuted and defended serious felonies and drug cases.

After four years, Kohler successfully ran for Nobles County Attorney, where he served for two terms.

There, he again worked with law enforcement personnel and handled all serious criminal prosecutions.

In 2002, he moved to Clay County where he took over the chief criminal prosecutor’s position with the Clay County Attorney's Office.

In 2006, he was appointed County Attorney in Clay County to complete the term of the former attorney.

Shortly thereafter, he was one of four finalists considered for judicial appointment in Clay County.

He joined Vogel Law Firm in 2006 as a criminal defense attorney in the firm’s Moorhead office. While his caseload involves major felonies, it also encompasses other misdemeanor cases, such as DUIs, traffic, juvenile, drug and many other charges. His experience in the courtroom is extensive, having handled over 100 jury trials.

Kohler was also a member of the Minnesota Army National Guard, appointed as a Judge Advocate General Officer for 11 years, achieving the rank of major.

He belongs to a number of professional and civic organizations.

Cheryl Duysen

Cheryl Duysen has been a prosecutor in the Clay County Attorney’s Office since 2005.

According to her website, Duysen has a reputation for holding offenders accountable for their crimes while maintaining her fundamental belief in fairness of the law.

She has worked toward justice in areas concerning both criminal and civil law during her career.

Duysen's previous attorney experience includes serving as law clerk to the Judge Michael L. Kirk from 2002 to 2005 in the Seventh Judicial District, and assistant public defender in the Seventh Judicial District in Moorhead during 2001.

She has extensive experience in the courtroom and has developed a positive working relationship with court administration staff.

Since 2001, Duysen has worked to develop a positive relationship with all professionals involved in the court system including law enforcement, probation, social services, crime victim services, and other attorneys in both the civil and criminal courts.

Duysen’s current duties focus on legal issues affecting families and children. Duysen is responsible for Juvenile Court cases including all levels of juvenile crime and child protection cases.

In an office of eight attorneys, Duysen has been given the opportunity over the years to cover all areas of the law required in the prosecutor's office. She has experience handling civil and criminal cases including felony, gross misdemeanor, and misdemeanor crimes.

Duysen earned her law degree from the University of North Dakota in 1993. Following law school, Duysen was employed with the Protection and Advocacy Project in North Dakota until 1998 where she ensured that the rights of people with disabilities, including mental illness and developmental disabilities, were protected.

Duysen took this opportunity to speak to many groups across the state of North Dakota on the topic of disabilities and the law. She was chosen to present to a North Dakota Senate committee on the topic of legal rights associated with mental illness at the North Dakota State Hospital in Jamestown, North Dakota.

As a part of her role, Duysen also provided education to the Peace Officers Training and Law Enforcement program in Devil's Lake, N.D.

Duysen earned a Bachelor of Social Work Degree from Minnesota State University Moorhead in 1987. She was a medical social worker, interned in a local nursing home, volunteered at a women and children's safe shelter and volunteered to assist elderly and low income clients complete federal and state tax returns.

She has lived in Moorhead since 1998 with her husband, Rich Duysen, who serves as fire chief of the Moorhead Fire Department and is a member of the Air National Guard of North Dakota.

Terry Graff

Terry Graff of Graff Law Office Inc. has been offering representation for disability claims in the Fargo, Moorhead, and surrounding areas for over 15 years.

His website says that “I focus on Social Security Disability claims, so you can be confident that your case will receive 100 percent of my attention.

“More than 20 years ago, I was found to be disabled by the Social Security Administration.

“In order to improve my circumstances, I went to law school. My first year at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn. was difficult because I was undergoing apheresis, which is similar to dialysis, two to three times a week before attending classes.

“I was forced to leave school after one year because of my conditions.

Following my time off, I transferred to the University of North Dakota School of Law. This time was difficult and stressful, but I persevered and graduated.

“My first position after graduation was with Options Resource Center for Independent Living. They are a disability rights organization dedicated to helping people with disabilities live as independently as possible in the community.

“With my background, I have a special interest in working with people with disabilities and have quite naturally focused on law in the area of Social Security Disability. I have practiced in other areas but Social Security remains my primary focus.

“I handle Social Security cases for people with all types of disabilities. I have been quite successful in the areas of dual diagnosis with chemical dependencies, which is a complicating factor. Additionally, I handle appeals throughout the administrative process and can proceed with appeals into the Federal Court system if necessary.

“My personal experience of getting approved for disability benefits and improving my life is why I can honestly say, ‘We've Walked in Your Shoes.’”