Originally published in the July/August 1995 issue.
Author: Andrew Coffey
A Hennepin County sheriff’s deputy trooped into Judge Lefler’s chambers one day this spring and eyed the sparse furnishings. "Do you have a panic button in here?" he asked. Judge Lefler waved the deputy back out to the law clerk’s office. "It’s out there," said the 48-year-old former Marine lieutenant. "I never panic."
The Hon. Herbert P. Lefler III was appointed to the Hennepin County bench in 1994 by Gov. Arne Carlson. Although he’s been on the job for more than three months, Judge Lefler’s office still has that just-moved-in look: Minnesota Statutes Annotated are stacked face down on the window sill, unpacked boxes line the floor, and the walls are bare. "I figure by the middle of summer it’ll look like I’m here to stay."
"Skip," as the judge is known to friends and colleagues, is a native Minnesotan and graduate of St. Louis Park High School. Fighting in Vietnam escalated while he was a student at the University of Minnesota, and he enrolled in the Marine Officer’s Training Program in 1968. He served a tour of duty with the Third Marine Division in Vietnam and Okinawa. He returned stateside and completed his duty at the Marine Corps Finance Center in Kansas City, Mo.
After graduating with a B.A. in political science from the University of Minnesota in 1972, Lefler went to law school at John Marshall in Chicago. After graduating in 1975, he went to work in his father’s law firm, LeFevere, Lefler, Kennedy, O’Brien & Drawz, where he practiced in the areas of municipal law, wills and trusts, and prosecuted for the city of Richfield. "It had its good days and its bad days," Judge Lefler said of his first job. "It was good to work with my father. Not a lot of kids get to see their parents in that role." Judge Lefler’s father, a former Plymouth city attorney and mayor of St. Louis Park, died in 1991.
After more than 10 years at LeFevere, Judge Lefler took a position with Thomsen & Nybeck in Edina, where he continued his practice in municipal work and wills and trusts. He also prosecuted for the city of Edina.
Judge Lefler quickly found that suburban practice was not to his liking. After only one year with the firm, he decided to open his own office in downtown Minneapolis, Lefler Law Office in the 701 Building. Judge Lefler worked half-time on the Conflicts Panel of the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office, and built the other half of his practice on his own. "That was a very nice deal," Judge Lefler said of his two-part practice. "I had the best of both worlds." His involvement with the Conflicts Panel meant that he was a benefits-eligible county employee, but he also got to develop his own practice. "I didn’t have to feel driven to take whatever client showed up at my door."
Judge Lefler said the biggest case of his career was defending Keith Bullock, a suspect in the 1990 murder of Julie Everson. Bullock pleaded guilty, but charges against him were dismissed after Russell Swart confessed under oath to the killing. Swart had previously been acquitted of the murder, and was immune from prosecution.
Having worked in both prosecution and defense, one would think Judge Lefler would be a stickler for courtroom expertise. He denies it. "I think I tend to be pretty forgiving. There’s a difference between making an honest mistake because you’ve never done this before, and being sloppy." But, Judge Lefler said, adherence to courtroom decorum is a must. "If you begin to argue an objection and don’t stand up, I’m going to tell you to stand up. But there’s no reason this should be a trial by ordeal."
Judge Lefler said his pet peeve is lawyers who drone on and on in the courtroom. "People have clients who are paying them money, so when they say something, they want to be sure it comes across. If they’re not sure about it, they say it a second time, and just to be sure they’ll say it a third time."
Being appointed to the bench means Judge Lefler has to give up quite a few of his outside involvements, and there’s quite a list. Before he was appointed, Judge Lefler was a member of the board of directors of the Minnesota Zoo, the Hennepin County Capital Budgeting Task Force, and the Community Education Services Board of Edina Public Schools. In the past he’s been on the Governor’s Commission on Violent Crimes and on the boards of directors of the Twin Cities Marathon, the St. Louis Park Emergency Program, and the Edina Hockey Association.
Judge Myron Greenberg advised Judge Lefler to actively cultivate his life outside the courtroom, to avoid what Judge Lefler calls "the dreaded black-robe disease." So now he’s pursuing more neutral activities to round out his life, like distance running ("I used to run 25 miles a week"), piano lessons, and sailing. Judge Lefler’s wife works at Dayton’s in the china department, and he has a son age 20, and a daughter age 18.
In addition to cutting back on his community ties, Judge Lefler says the new job has required him to do quite a bit of adjusting in other ways. "I used to have a great deal of discretion as to how to spend my time," he said of his solo practice. "Now I have to try to fit into a large organization where all my scheduling comes from other places." He also finds the judicial life more sedentary than private practice, where he used to run back and forth from the courthouse and meetings with clients. "Now I come in in the morning, have a couple shots of exotic coffee, then go sit still for a couple of hours."
One of the most challenging adjustments for Judge Lefler has been going from the role of an advocate to that of a mediator. "We’ve all been in situations where we’re watching someone doing something, and they’re not doing it very well. It can be so painful." But he said he’s not shy about cutting off a lawyer who’s slowing down the trial. "We’re not going to sit here all day so you can play Trivial Pursuit with the Rules of Evidence."
"You can’t take yourself too seriously," Judge Lefler said of his new role. "You get the special robes, and you get to sit on the special platform. People do treat judges differently. If you go back to your office and start talking about something, someone’s going to interrupt you. They don’t do that to judges."