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staff reporter It’s no surprise to find Minnesota judges dispensing justice. But hamburgers? Yes, hamburgers. Judge Wilhelmina Wright of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, along with other members of the appeals court, were recently serving them to homeless men and women at a St. Paul, Minn.-based shelter. Minnesota judges are not exploring career alternatives. They’re attempting to reach out to the state’s minority communities and to make inroads into a sometimes forgotten constituency. They felt they had to do something in the wake of two reports indicating racial bias in the state’s court system, as well as a public perception that the courts were not in touch with the state’s residents. The first report, “Minnesota Supreme Court on Racial Bias in the Judicial System,” issued in 1993, found apparent racial bias at every level of the justice system, including higher bail settings and longer jail sentences for African-Americans as compared to whites. A more recent study issued by the Minnesota court system in 2000 showed that 48% of respondents felt that the “courts are out of touch with what’s going on in their communities.” Much of the distrust highlighted by these reports lies in the fact that while African-Americans, for example, comprise only 3.5% of the state’s population, they make up 36% of the jail population, according to a recent report by the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. In order to get more in touch with the minority communities and to teach them about the court system, judges initiated the meetings. Judges hope they will be able to explain how the justice system functions, and that, as a result, people will come to see them as more than authority figures. Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz said that “as a judiciary we see public confidence as our lifeblood.” Dakota County Judge Edward Lynch said, “We try and tailor each visit to what the community wants to learn. The Chinese community, for example, wanted to learn more about immigration, so we brought an immigration lawyer with us.” ‘Separated, not severed’ Jim Baille, president-elect of the Minnesota State Bar Association, mentioned that certain members of the legal profession have voiced concern over judges meeting citizens on such a personal level. They feel that such encounters might compromise a judge’s neutrality. Blatz views such notions as “an old-school way of thinking . . . .As a branch of the government we are supposed to be separate, not severed.” Wright believes that “as members of government, judges have a responsibility to educate the citizenry . . . .This should in no way affect a judge’s ability to remain neutral.” Blatz has made a concerted effort to encourage her fellow judges to become engaged with the community. Blatz, for example, regularly visits schools to talk with students about the judicial system. “There is a need to be involved with the public and not remain behind the bench,” she said. “A judge is chosen based on her involvement with the community, and that should not stop once she is made a judge.” Lauchheimer’s e-mail address is [email protected].

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