In the 19th Court, the contest between Jana Austad and James Hughes is one of experience versus jurisprudence. Austad has described herself as a candidate with eclectic experiences in a wide variety of judicial fields, vetted and supported by her peers, and one with a thoughtful, even-keeled approach to the bench. In turn, Hughes is a self-avowed Textualist, with a bent for executing the law with caution, in a conservative manner that may contrast with courts in St. Paul.
Appointed to her seat by former Gov. Mark Dayton in 2013 and voted assistant chief justice by her peers in 2019, Austad’s path in the judicial system has proven wide-ranging. During her career, Austad has served as a judge for seven years, in private civil practice for seven years, nine years as a criminal defense attorney, with a seven-year-gap in which she was a stay-at-home parent for her children.
Her career features stints as a legislative aide, an attorney with private civil firms, serving as a manager of public defenders for the Brainerd district, inter-tribal law in conjunction with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe (with an emphasis on intoxicated driving litigation), stints with Cass County courts, serving on advisory committees to the Minnesota Supreme Court, working as a liaison judge with juvenile centers, as well as working as a board member with chemical dependency centers that specialize with mentally inhibited patients.
In short, Austad said she has a wide breadth of experience — from upper-echelon corporate litigation down to workers compensation cases, from small-town practices representing poorer, marginalized clients to family law and cases in specialized, unique situations.
“It’s the diversity and length of my personal and legal experience, the combination of those two,” Austad said. “I’ve managed people, I’ve practiced in a lot of different areas of the law, and that gives me a certain perspective.”
“I don't think anybody should ever walk into court and wonder if their politics would matter to the judge,” she added later. “That would be such a terrible thing to have that layer of mistrust. … It is very important to me when somebody walks into the courtroom that they're not suspicious about my personal values because my personal values are not what drives my decision.”
Austad noted while she was appointed by lawmakers in St. Paul to her current seat, she wouldn’t be there if she hadn’t undergone a rigorous vetting process implemented by litigators from across the state and locally. Austad has been evaluated in terms of her ability to enact justice and function ethically within the court system and she’s been elevated to higher levels of responsibility by judges she works with.
“I think Minnesota's merit selection process does a good job at getting things like demeanor and character,” Austad said. “That gives them a real decent chance to find out not only how you interview, but how you get along with other lawyers, whether or not you show up for court prepared, how you interact with the court, and how you behave with your opponents when you're under stress and under pressure.”
In terms of Black Lives Matter and how racial issues factor in the justice system, Austad noted district court judges are expected to apply the law in terms of precedence and how the law is structured, not to formulate interpretations of their own. That being said, she added, every case is different and judges have to approach the issue in a detailed, nuanced manner to ensure justice isn’t being inhibited by biases, whether personal or systemic.
Judging by the data, she noted Cass County has a good record in terms of race, as metrics like charges, citations, incarcerations and so on are proportionate to each demographic in the region.
“I have my values because I believe in them, and I was raised with them and I think they're good values. But if I try to apply them to another group of people who have prioritized values in a different way, I’m going to have a negative effect on them when I'm in the dominant culture,” Austad said. “We have to be in communication with other people.”
Currently living in Baxter, Austad, 55, is originally of Bemidji and graduated high school there. She studied political science for her undergraduate at Oxford College in Minneapolis, then studied at William Mitchell College Of Law (now Mitchell Hamline School of Law) for her Juris Doctor degree. Previously married, Austad is currently engaged and mother to three children: daughters Carina and Ava, as well as a son, Joe. She described herself as a lifelong Minnesotan who’s avid love for the outdoors and colder temperatures melds well with her home region.
This is the first run for public office for Hughes, who is currently the executive director of Regional Native Public Defense, where he said he oversees five public defenders.
“I've never run for public office. This was an opportunity that I think is very specific to this judicial seat and to Cass County itself,” Hughes said. “I practice in her (Austad’s) courtroom and I feel like maybe the county and the district could use a change.”
“I think, based on my time observing this judge, that some of those limits of statutory and constitutional power are things that she wishes didn't apply to her,” Hughes said later. “I do think that I am legitimately the more legally conservative candidate.”
Hughes said his candidacy is about having local courts being administered and arbitrated by people from the local area — not appointees that reflect the will of the Twin Cities metro.
“The vast majority of the judges that are put on the bench are put there by a governor who has a constitutional right to appoint a judge,” Hughes said. “What that ultimately does, I think, is put Greater Minnesota under the authority, and sometimes the whim, of the people who are in charge of St. Paul.”
Hughes said he brings a Textualist approach, which is defined as an interpretation of the law primarily based on the ordinary meaning of the legal text itself. Little or no consideration is given to factors in the case outside the text, such as why a law was passed or the circumstances that led to the original ruling.
“I take a conservative approach to interpreting a law,” Hughes said. “Whatever my personal preferences and personal beliefs may be, the law is the law, and it's not just to create policy. It's not for a judge to substitute their will for the will of the Legislature or the law that's before us.”
In terms of Black Lives Matter and how racial issues factor in the justice system, Hughes said he believes people of color may have legitimate grievances with the Minnesota justice system. Speaking as a legal advocate who often works with tribal entities or people from marginalized backgrounds, both racial and socio-economic, Hughes said he’s not trying to judge cases differently based on race, but is aware of some shortcomings the justice system has historically displayed.
“It’s appropriate for people who don't come from Caucasian backgrounds to feel like the court system has failed them, because in many regards I think it has. I wish I could tell you I think we have a colorblind system, but the fact of the matter is the outcomes don't support that,” Hughes said. “My experience as an attorney, taking care of and advocating for the client base that I advocate for has made me very cognizant of issues that people of color and people who come from lower economic backgrounds or challenging economic circumstances, deal with in the court system.”
Originally from St. Charles in the Chicago suburbs, Hughes, 41, got his start in the business world working in the banking sector. His experiences interacting with lawyers in estate and trust management business led him to attend the University of Nebraska for his law degree, whereupon he moved up to Minnesota. There he landed a job in private practice in 2012, which led to his current position. He lives in Bemidji with his wife, Karin Hughes, who is also a practicing attorney, as well as their cats. He described himself as an avid football and baseball fan.