“What do you do as a judge?” I’ve been asked this question on numerous occasions. The answer is “many different things.”
District judges preside over cases and trials of many types: criminal, family, civil, probate, and juvenile. I often refer to the wide variety of criminal cases we hear as “misdemeanors to murders.” For example, in recent weeks, I heard criminal cases involving domestic violence, murder, leaving the scene of an accident, terroristic threats, assault, theft, robbery, drunk driving and other traffic offenses, criminal sexual offenses, violation of protective orders, felony possession of firearms, and many other crimes and misdemeanors.
In the family law area, trial judges hear and decide cases involving divorce, child custody, parenting time, property division, child support, spousal maintenance (alimony), and other disputes and issues involving family relations. We also hear civil claims and trials involving medical malpractice, auto accident and other injury claims, fights over boundary lines and real property ownership, small claims, employment termination, contract disagreements, and many other disputes.
District court judges also handle juvenile delinquency cases, child protection cases often involving the removal of children from an unsafe or abusive home, and school truancies, runaway children, terminating parental rights to children, and other court hearings to protect and advance the best interests of children.
Probate law involves overseeing the administration of estates, family trusts, guardianships and conservatorships for those needing help and protection in their daily affairs, adoptions and name changes, commitment of people to institutions for their protection and that of the public, disputes over wills and trusts, and the proper division of a deceased person’s assets. As you can imagine, these matters can get quite contentious and the intervention of a court is often necessary to keep peace among the parties.
The district judges also oversee what are called master calendars, where people make their initial appearances before the court. In the criminal context it usually takes place soon after a person is charged with an offense. It could be a relatively simple matter like a traffic ticket, to a very serious felony crime involving the setting of bail to help ensure that a person released from custody will return back to court for further proceedings.
There are also family master calendars, which involve petitions for orders to stop harassment or for protection against threats or violence from a domestic partner or family member. Commitments, adoptions, name changes, an occasional wedding, and other matters not heard on the other calendars, are also usually scheduled to be heard on the family master calendar.
In addition to hearing the cases described above, district judges also have other duties. We rotate being on call and available in the evenings, at night, and on weekends for issuing search warrants, reviewing the possible release of those in law enforcement custody on weekends, and other emergency situations needing a judge’s immediate attention.
Being a district court judge is a 24/7 job. We judges wouldn’t have it any other way.
* Judge Frank Kundrat serves in the Seventh Judicial District of Minnesota, chambered in St. Cloud.