Toddrick S. Barnette
Originally published in the July/August 2006 issue.
Author: Tracy M. Smith
His face resting thoughtfully in the palm of his hand as he works his way through a full docket of misdemeanor court appearances, Judge Todd Barnette looks at home on the bench. He has been a judge for only a couple of months, yet already runs his courtroom with quiet authority.
Leaning forward and looking over his glasses at a defendant he is conditionally releasing, Judge Barnette tells him in no uncertain terms: “You can’t drive. You can’t drink. Stay out of trouble. Take care of your kids.” To a skinny young man who had missed a court appearance, Judge Barnette asks: “Why’d you miss court?” Not getting a satisfactory answer, he calmly repeats, “Why’d you miss court?” Finally getting a response, Judge Barnette warns the man not to miss the next time, because there might be a different judge on the bench. Then, like he is springing a pop quiz, Judge Barnette asks the man to repeat when he is next due in court. The young man promptly recites the correct time and date, drawing a smile from the judge.
Quick impressions of the judge in court are confirmed by a longer interview: Judge Barnette is a thoughtful, understated but confident man with an engaging sense of humor.
Judge Barnette was raised by his mother and grandmother as an only child in the Anacostia neighborhood in Southeast Washington, D.C., an area widely known for its crushing poverty and devastating crime. While familiar with both—“any direction you walked you could find drugs, trouble”—Judge Barnette grew up in a tight-knit community on a working class block. Most of the families had been there since the fifties and formed a stable community in which everyone knew everyone. If he “got in trouble on the playground, a neighbor lady had already called the house” by the time he got home. While individual families didn’t have nannies, “Nana” East, a woman who lived across the street from Judge Barnette’s grandmother, took care of all of the little kids on the block, while the older kids spent their free time at the playground.
Judge Barnette’s mother worked at the local recreational center, developing and running programs for kids—“anything to keep people in the community engaged.” She sent her son to Catholic school. He laughingly recalls how his neighborhood friends would skip school to come tease him about his uniform. But, Judge Barnette says, even these friends, whom many might have considered to be bad influences, wanted him to do well.
It was important to his mother that her son learn that “there were things beyond Southeast.” She took him to Saks Fifth Avenue in Northwest Washington, and she showed him the beautiful fruits and vegetables sold at a market in Southwest D.C. His mother also sent him to live with an adored uncle in Hawaii for his sixth-grade year. While Judge Barnette saw what the world had to offer, he also learned not to treat people differently because of their means. His family had more than others, and less than many, but in his neighborhood, he says, those distinctions didn’t matter.
After high school, Judge Barnette commuted from his home in Southeast to George Washington University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and sociology. At GWU, he was particularly engaged in the Educational Opportunity Program, an enrichment and tutoring program designed to foster students of color. Following graduation, Judge Barnette considered pursuing a graduate degree in criminal justice, but on the advice of mentors decided to go to law school.
An acquaintance suggested the University of Minnesota Law School. Judge Barnette applied and then came to Minneapolis for a visit. He spent a nice sunny day in May touring the city, walking around Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles, and decided to move here for school. Several months later, he watched in disbelief as four inches of snow fell, but the Law School wasn’t closing, forcing him to race to class. (Washington, D.C. is notorious for shutting down with an inch of snow.) The 1991 Halloween snowstorm, which dumped almost 30 inches of snow on the Twin Cities, cemented that he had entered a very different world.
During law school, Judge Barnette served as a judicial extern to Federal District Judge Michael Davis. He did not yet know what he wanted to do with his law degree, and Judge Davis suggested he look at the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office. Judge Barnette not only took that advice, he, along with Judge Davis’s law clerk, took from Judge Davis his unused invitation to an open house at the Public Defender’s Office, mainly to enjoy the free food and drink. At the event Judge Barnette connected with the personnel director and got an interview, and soon thereafter he was working as a law clerk in the office.
After graduation, Judge Barnette joined the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office as a lawyer. Judge Barnette handled a variety of misdemeanor and felony cases, and he spent much of his time on cases in juvenile court. From 2001 to 2004, he was the senior attorney in the drug court unit.
After 14 years with the public defender, he decided to try something new. Committed to remaining in public service, Judge Barnette joined the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office as a senior assistant county attorney in the Juvenile Division. There, Judge Barnette prosecuted all types of delinquency cases, and he had a special focus on certification of juveniles as adults and “extended jurisdiction” cases. Judge Barnette was also responsible for the Criminal Sexual Conduct Team within the Juvenile Division.
When asked what he learned from moving to the other side of criminal law, Judge Barnette responded that it was not hard to switch from defending to prosecuting. In either case, he said, the lawyer is an advocate doing his job. Rather, what impressed him most were the “tireless workers” at the county attorney’s office. As a public defender, he had considered prosecutors to have endless resources and, he joked, a “cushy job.” But he soon learned to appreciate the enormous amount of case preparation prosecutors must do to be ready for whatever the judge or the defense throws their way. Judge Barnette was also impressed by his colleagues’ deep commitment to public safety and victim rights.
Outside of his law practice, Judge Barnette has been active in professional and bar activities. He is a member of the Minnesota State Bar Association, Hennepin County Bar Association, Minnesota County Attorneys Association, Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers, and Black Prosecutors Association, and he has served on the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and Hennepin County Juvenile Advisory Committee.
Judge Barnette’s volunteer work reflects his interest in community and youth. He worked with the Restorative Justice Peacemaking Project in North Minneapolis, which is a community-based, nonjudicial program working with offenders, victims, and community members to address crime and its impact. Along with two colleagues, Judge Barnette co-taught a course in self-defense through the Juvenile Gun Program run by Hennepin County’s juvenile probation department. This course was not “self-defense” in the traditional sense. Rather, it taught kids that it is not self-defense to use a gun because someone treated them with disrespect. Judge Barnette tried to teach the youth to avoid violent reactions, to see that they “can walk away” and “still stay alive.”
Judge Barnette’s life is made even busier by his two small children, Morgan, 3, and Myles, 1. Judge Barnette also has an adult son, Herman Mean. Judge Barnette is married to Gretchen Hoffman, a lawyer whom he first met in his law clerk days at the Public Defender’s Office. Judge Barnette and his family reside in Maple Grove. Judge Barnette says that his governing principle as a judge—for himself, for his staff, and for the lawyers appearing before him—is that they must treat everyone with respect. “We are going to get calls from someone I sentenced, from that person’s cousin, and from the chief judge,” he says, and he expects his staff to be respectful to all of them. “We are going to be in the business of being customer friendly.” He expects the same from the lawyers in his courtroom. While the job can be stressful, and advocates can be zealous, he insists that lawyers always remain professional. As a judge, Judge Barnette also is continually aware of the need to keep an open mind. People will surprise you, he says. Someone might have a bad track record, but this time might turn things around.
Judge Barnette’s philosophy echoes the lessons he learned in his youth. His mother was not alive to attend his public swearing-in ceremony on March 17, 2006. But his grandmother was there, and she held the Bible for her grandson, the new Hennepin County district judge.
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