Behind the gavel: The judges of Douglas CountyIn an almost-perfect world, David Battey wouldn’t have to worry about anything more serious than how much a cow is worth.
By: Jo Colvin, Alexandria Echo Press
In an almost-perfect world, David Battey wouldn’t have to worry about anything more serious than how much a cow is worth.
He wouldn’t have to settle family disputes or sign orders for protection. He wouldn’t have to watch children be traumatized by custody disputes or get them protection from their own parents. He wouldn’t have to see neighbors become enemies. He wouldn’t see liars, thieves, cheaters, sex offenders and murderers.
And he wouldn’t have to send anyone to jail.
“I don’t ever enjoy sending anyone to prison,” Battey said. “It’s never fun.”
Ann Carrott concurs. “Whenever you sentence someone to a disposition to take away their liberty in any way, I take that very seriously,” she said.
It’s just another day on the job for Battey and Carrott – because their office is a courtroom. When they don their robes and step into the courtroom, they see the worst in people, and cynicism is a potential hazard of the job.
They see disrespect and dishonesty, human misery and degradation. But they also see sorrow and sadness; remorse and regret; and an occasional glimmer of hope that what they are doing will somehow make a difference.
What they do
Battey and Carrot are judges for Minnesota’s Seventh Judicial District, which encompasses 10 counties, including Douglas. They work only in Douglas County unless they are filling in for other judges or need to preside over cases in other counties where a conflict of interest is involved.
District court judges are first appointed by the governor for a one-year “grace period.” Judges are then elected for six-year terms.
The majority of the cases over which they preside are criminal, juvenile and family disputes. Civil cases, in which parties sue each other for monetary damages, comprise a smaller percentage of the docket. “We do everything from juvenile smoking cases to conciliation court to homicides,” Battey explained.
Beyond sitting behind the bench and sentencing criminals, the judges have an abundance of paperwork to complete. They must research and review each case, along with signing orders and other behind-the-scenes tasks the public is not aware of.
“I thought I knew before I took this job the volume of paperwork,” Carrott said. “I had a clear understanding of the volume of case, but didn’t have a clear understanding of the paperwork. You literally spend hours working on it.”
In Minnesota, district court judges preside over all kinds of criminal cases – from misdemeanors to felonies, including medical malpractice cases, contract disputes, family law, custody disputes, juvenile cases, orders for protection, car accidents, children in need of protection and criminal cases, murder, driving under the influence, to name a few.
A vast array of lawbreakers enter their courtrooms, and it is their job to dole out the appropriate punishment. With misdemeanors, judges may use their own discretion, but with felonies, they must adhere to strict sentencing guidelines and statutes – no matter how difficult it may be.
“It’s easy to be tough on crime until it happens to your friend or neighbor or family member,” Battey said of sentencing criminals to jail time. “It’s something I have to do and I have to follow the law. Even if I disagree with it. That’s the oath we took.”
Here come the judges
Carrott was appointed a district court judge in November 2007 and was elected one year later. A graduate of Hamline Law School, she served as assistant Morrison County attorney before moving to Alexandria. She served as Douglas County attorney for 12 years and then worked for a private law firm prior to her judge appointment.
“It was a logical progression for me,” Carrott said of her recent position. “I like being an advocate for clients, but my real interest was in being a neutral evaluator.”
Raised in a family of teachers, Carrott’s passion is for children. One of her greatest rewards in being a judge is in knowing that she has had an impact on a child going astray.
“If you can get through to some of these kids and get them on track, they do move on and learn from their mistakes,” she said. “It’s rather gratifying when you see kids get beyond these issues and move on to do good things.”
In contrast, cases involving children can also be the most challenging for Carrott.
“The most intense situations are termination of parental rights cases,” she lamented. “Whenever family relationships are involved, it always makes them more difficult.”
Carrott has served on several district committees, has been appointed by the Supreme Court to the Board of Law Examiners, and has been involved on other committees to “improve the system.”
“My vision is that you need to give back in those ways,” she concluded. “It’s an honor to be in this job. When I put the robe on, I want to keep in tune with what I do and why I do it. I’m never complacent about the power this job has.”
When Battey was a junior in high school, he knew that he was going to be a lawyer. His father was a lawyer and a federal judge. His brother and two cousins are also lawyers.
“It kind of runs in the family,” Battey said. “I was always interested in law and hung around my dad and his partner.”
He graduated from Willamette University College of Law in Salem, Oregon. From 1978 to 1980, he worked as a federal law clerk in St. Paul. In 1980 he moved to Alexandria, where he was a partner with a local law firm until 1995. In 1995 he was appointed to the district court judge position by then Governor Arne Carlson. He was elected in 1996 and again in 2002 and 2008.
Being a judge provides Battey with a variety that he finds challenging and rewarding. And like Carrott, his job gives him the opportunity to get someone on the right track.
“I like feeling I can make a difference – by helping kids or somehow influencing a defendant not to commit crimes,” Battey said. “Someone has to be on the front lines to make sure justice is done. I feel like I’m helping to protect people.”
It is during adoption hearings that Battey feels the most positive experience in his job.
“To see kids come from lousy families and then become accepted into families with great parents is a pure joy,” he said.
But as a judge, the challenges often outweigh the rewards, and he’s seen it all. He’s seen families torn apart when a loved-one is sentenced to prison for criminal vehicular homicide. He’s seen disturbing pictures of autopsies. He’s seen intoxicated parents bringing in their teens who’ve been charged with minor consumption. He’s had every foul word in the book hurled at him.
“If I wrote down one thing that happens each day that is crazy, people wouldn’t believe it,” he said.
He’s even had a cattle rustling case. The defendants stole a cow, cut its throat and hung it out to dry on a nearby farm. Using a statute that dated back to the 1800s, Battey had to determine the damages – the dollar amount to place on the life of a cow. If it was $700 or less, it would be a misdemeanor. “I’ve never seen that statute used,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve had all kinds.”
After careful deliberation, Battey determined that the cow was worth $750. The cattle thief was now a felon.
If only all his cases were that open and shut.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series about the Douglas County court system and the Seventh District judges. In the August 7 issue of the Echo Press, read about a typical week in court.