Our Neighbors...Years of service taught judge empathy, optimism
Retired Judge Dale Wolf is matter-of-fact about his years of experience behind the bench and reflected on how it can change a person’s perspective on justice — and on life.
“There is an old saying that once you get on the bench your jokes become a lot funnier to the attorneys!” he cracked. “In reality, it changed a lot of things in the sense that I could no longer be an advocate but instead a neutral magistrate. I sometimes got frustrated if I saw an attorney doing things a bit different than I would have. But soon I found that my role is to try and do justice within the limited confines of the case as presented to me.”
After 36 years, Wolf was the longest-seated judge in the state of Minnesota. He admitted sitting behind the bench year after year tends to give one a somewhat jaded view of the world because no one comes before you unless they have a problem or are in trouble.
“There are two nice exceptions to our work,” he added, “— weddings and adoptions. I love doing both of those things.”
Wolf was the first judge in the entire Sixth District to bring a computer into the courtroom and to work on a major case with one.
“I had an old, dull screen with amber letters and 5.1-inch-large disks, with virtually no memory,” he said.
In fact, according to Wolf, the most significant way our courts have changed is in the area of technology.
“Bruce Ahlgren, as court administrator, pushed for our county to be a trial county and kept us on the forefront from the very beginning,” he said. “Our current administrator, Judy Isaacson, has continued that push and we will soon be totally paperless. There will be single entry points where more things can be done much faster and shared by many users at the same time. Eventually that process will not only speed up our efficiency but cost less. Computers have changed the way we do many things and one prime example is our legal research. It is faster and more thorough.”
On the other side of the coin, Wolf said one unfortunate development that has evolved due to technology is the collection of what should be closed, confidential records on juveniles.
“When I first started here all of our juvenile cases were indexed on 3 x 5 recipe cards and believe me, there were names in there of people who later went on to become great teachers, insurance agents, probation agents and lawyers. But now it seems like teenagers who make some snap judgments with friends can’t trip or make even one mistake without it following them forever into their adult lives. There are way too many collateral consequences for not just juveniles, but youthful adult offenders as well, who will never re-offend. But since we have the ability to mine data, we feel it is necessary. I would estimate 90 percent of the people who come to court have their first slip up also be their last. But ‘rehabilitation’ seems to be trumped by Google and data miners for employment companies.
“In some very sensitive jobs it might be necessary to know of certain repeat offenses or a type of offense,” he acknowledged, “but for the vast majority, someone who shoplifted a CD when they were 15 will go on to become an excellent employee for 45 years of their adult life. By that same token, people with ‘spotless’ records from the past suddenly get a gambling addiction and after 25 years with a company, they embezzle money. We need to limit what does or does not follow and haunt people trying to do the right thing as adults.”
Wolf further commented that the whole concept of “permanency of records” is a concern to him.
“Being out in cyberspace changes a child, teenager and young adult’s history in the sense that silly things they said on Facebook as a 12-year-old, or poor judgments they made as a 14-year-old, will still be with them at age 50.”
Though many would think that the more sensational murder cases would stand out most in the mind of a judge, Wolf said the ones he remembers most are very different.
“I think for most judges it is the child abuse and neglect case or the bitter, never-ending child custody cases that haunt us most,” he said. “We continually ask ourselves, ‘Did we do the right thing?’ There are lots of gray areas in those fields compared to most criminal matters. I just heard from a father to whom I awarded custody of his son back in 1982. He was kind enough to send photos of the grown son, now a successful CEO, husband and a father himself, living in Tennessee. We don’t often hear about the successes. Most often we only see the failures when they return to court, not the successful matters that never reappear. That is a big part of the process that lends to the jaded view we must guard against on the bench.”
Wolf also spoke of one murder case in particular that stuck with him because it involved a shaken baby boy named Brandon. Not only was the baby’s name Brandon, but so was the defendant in the case as well as the baby’s biological father, who was devastated.
“All three parties were named Brandon, and my own son was also named Brandon and was a youngster at the time,” he related. “My dear father died during jury selection in the case. In dad’s immediate possessions was a photo of my Brandon sitting on his lap at age 6 months. I just kept thinking that no matter how this case resolves, there would be no more birthdays for that young baby victim, Brandon, nor would life ever be the same for the other two Brandons.”
One of the sadder states of affairs in a judge’s courtroom is to see repeat offenders appear again and again, and Wolf treats each one individually, according to his assessment of their circumstances.
“For certain repeat offenders I believe in ‘staggered’ sentencing,” he explained. “That means they may get a one-year jail term, be required to serve the first 90 days and then have a date to reappear nine months later to show me why they should not do the rest of the jail time. It is a much different process than being on probation because the State does not have to prove some violation of law or bad behavior. Instead, it is on the defendant’s foot to show me how wonderfully they have done to earn a continuance of the sentence.
“Some I talk quite pointedly to because I want them to know just exactly what society expects of all of us and why I am doing what I am regarding her or his sentencing,” he continued. “I recently had a repeat criminal leave court and get back in trouble just hours later. I want people to know exactly why they get the punishment they have ‘earned.’”
Wolf said often an offense committed while an offender is on probation is chiefly due to his or her drug dependency or secondary issues such a mental illness or being victims of abuse.
“Not everyone who violates the law is a ‘criminal,’” he posed. “Only about 3 to 5 percent are beyond much hope, or need long prison terms to keep them off the street.”
As Wolf prepared to retire at the end of last week, he said he leaves Carlton County Court in good hands with Judge Robert Macaulay there to assist Wolf’s yet-to-be-determined successor.
“Many people don’t realize that Rob, too, is a veteran judge himself, now in his 20th year here as district judge,” said Wolf. “I am praying that someone who is caring about our county and all of our people succeeds me here on the bench. People with problems who come into court, be it civil actions, family, juvenile or criminal matters, all need to be heard. I am confident that the new judge will work well with Judge Macaulay and they will continue operating a smooth and caring system.”
On the future of the court system in Carlton County, Wolf said he sees the development of a Drug Court as an approach that can have considerable success in an ever-growing culture of substance abuse.
As Judge Wolf eases into retirement (he still plans on doing occasional work on the bench under “senior judge” status), he hopes to continue doing more of the things he’s come to love along the way.
“I grew up fishing for trout in the area streams and later my dad introduced me to fly fishing,” he said. “I have many semi-secret places around here to hunt for some brook trout and a number of great streams up north and out in the western states to fly fish. I love the fact that my daughter Andrea and her husband, Bryan, make their home in Loveland, Colorado, very close to some wonderful trout waters in the Rockies. Their spare room will be getting lots of use from now on!”
He said he also hopes to get back into watercolors and be able to do more painting, and of course there are the inevitable work projects around the house, as well as more free time to do volunteer work.
“I will still teach at UMD, as I love that process,” he said, “and maybe I will finally finish my book.”
And if someone were to one day write Wolf’s epitaph, he said he hopes it might read something like this:
“Judge Wolf had empathy for his fellow citizen, no matter their race, religion or social status. He had a love for the law, took his job seriously, but remembered to be kind and not to take himself too seriously.”