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Becker County District Judge Jay Carlson helped get MN courts through pandemic and redistricting

“For almost two years, speedy-demand-for-trial cases were the only ones heard in person,” Carlson said. “It’s been just a sea change.”

Jay Carlson.JPG
Jay Carlson
Nathan Bowe/Tribune

Considering he’s a district judge from little old Becker County, Minnesota, Jay Carlson has had an outsized impact on statewide judicial policy – from finding ways to keep courtrooms safe during the COVID-19 pandemic to helping set new legislative and congressional boundaries following the 2020 Census.

While headquartered in Detroit Lakes, Carlson served as chief judge of the 10-county Seventh Judicial District from 2017 to 2021. His term ended July 1 and he is retiring from the bench April 4.

Coping with the covid disruption

The modern judicial system had not seen anything as widely disruptive as the pandemic that hit Minnesota in March of 2020, and Carlson found himself in the thick of it.

As a chief judge, Carlson already had a seat on the 25-member Judicial Council – which sets administrative policy for the state’s judicial branch.

“I was vice chair of the Judicial Council at that time,” he said.

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And when the pandemic struck, changes had to be made to allow for video testimony and remote hearings “so that the whole system didn’t shut down,” he said. “Within 30 days, we were conducting 4,000 hearings a week by Zoom. That was a big job, making sure people could get hearings done remotely.”

Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea appointed Carlson to a five-member committee, tasked with finding a way to keep the courts operating in that highly unusual situation. He was chairman of the Judicial Branch Strategic Planning Committee.

“Things were happening so quickly,” Carlson said, “we needed a nimble group to make decisions quickly.”

While the Judicial Council met monthly, the smaller committee would meet weekly or even more often, in person or by phone, to keep up with medical recommendations and other changes on the ground.

“For almost two years, speedy-demand-for-trial cases were the only ones heard in person,” Carlson said. “It’s been just a sea change.”

He was interviewed at the Becker County Courthouse Monday, coincidentally, the first day the mask mandate was removed in Minnesota courtrooms.

And changes made during the pandemic, such as remote hearings in some situations, will continue to be used in the state court system, he predicted.

“The more uncontested a matter is, the more it’s a candidate for remote technology,” he said. It makes no sense to require an attorney to drive three or four hours for a routine court hearing that could be easily handled remotely, he said.

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The more contested a hearing, such as one that requires testimony from a witness or a police officer, the more likely attorneys and judges are going to want to be there in person, in order to fully judge vocal inflections and subtle facial mannerisms, he said.

Redrawing the political boundaries

Because of divided government in Minnesota, every 10 years for the past 50 years it has fallen to the state judicial system to redraw political lines, based on the latest U.S. Census numbers.

This time around, Carlson was one of five judges on the Special Redistricting Panel that did the job.

“Minnesota almost lost a Congressional seat due to population,” which would have greatly complicated the panel’s work, Carlson said.

Had 90 fewer Minnesotans been counted, the state of New York would have picked up a seat and Minnesota would have been left out in the cold, with only seven representatives in the U.S. House instead of eight.

Minnesota can thank a big rise in the state’s minority population for putting it over the edge, he said. “There’s been a tremendous increase in diversity over the last 10 years,” he said.

The other members on the redistricting panel were Louise Bjorkman, Diane Bratvold, Juanita Freeman and Jodi Williamson. All five were appointed by Chief Justice Gildea.

Carlson said the judges on the panel offset each other well. He knows this part of western and central Minnesota well, and Freeman knows Minneapolis-St. Paul especially well, for example.

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One of the bigger changes in legislative districts in this area combines the three major reservations – White Earth, Red Lake and Leech Lake – together into one state Senate district.

Ten public meetings were held around the state by the panel prior to its decision, and the new Senate district “was the result of some of the public comments,” he said.

Congressional districts also changed in Minnesota, including both the Seventh District, which used to cover most of western Minnesota, and the Eighth District, which used to be an Iron Range and Duluth district. Both needed to add another 40,000 residents so all eight districts were in balance.

Now the congressional district line goes through Becker County, so it will have two U.S. representatives instead of just one.

The judicial panel and its staff used Maptitude mapping software, which is so precise “you could split an apartment building,” Carlson joked.

The process included, not just the 10 public hearings around the state, but 25 working days in November and December to hammer out the proposed lines, and a day of oral arguments in St. Paul in early January. “We met in January to incorporate ideas and feedback, and prior to that we heard arguments on the principles we would use to draw the lines fairly and compactly, but not politically help or hinder incumbents.”

Those principles included one person, one vote, the Voting Rights Act, state statutes, and not diminishing the rights of minorities.

The final plan ended up with 10 legislative districts that each have two Republican incumbents, seven districts that each have two DFL incumbents, and 20 open districts with no incumbents.

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“The work of the panel has generally been well-received by both parties, and good-government groups supported the maps we’ve drawn,” he said.

Getting back his public voice

Carlson was an attorney in Fargo and the Cormorant lakes area for 27 years before he was appointed district judge in 2006 by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. He started his law career in 1979 in private practice, worked at the Ohnstad and Twichell law firm from 2003 to 2005, and went back to private practice in 2005-2006.

He has been involved in the Big Cormorant Lake Association, the Cormorant Lakes Watershed District Advisory Committee, St. Mary’s of the Lakes Church, and the Cormorant Lions Club, as well as a number of professional organizations.

In retirement, he plans to do more hunting, fishing and boating – he lives in a cabin in the Cormorant area that has been in the family since the 1960s. Like many retired judges, he also plans to work as a “senior judge” part time, filling in as needed in court, and helping to clear the backlog of cases from the pandemic.

“I’m also looking forward to getting back my public voice,” he said. “You’re muted as a judge on many issues, because you don’t want to look biased on the bench.”

He said he very much appreciates working with judicial partners over the years, from court staff to law enforcement to human services to guardians ad litem.

“Their reports on a daily basis get you the information you need to make good decisions. I’m very appreciative to these folks – you can’t be a good judge without support behind you.”

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