In the 4th Court, voters will give the final verdict on a race that’s become uncharacteristically heated for a seat in the nonpartisan — by law — judicial branch. The incumbent, Halverson, has touted himself as a proven arbiter of the law with a 30-year track record of integrity. His opponent, Cass County Attorney Ben Lindstrom, said he will bring an even-handed, non-politicized approach to the bench that better reflects the lakes area.
A social media account tied to Lindstrom’s campaign made sweeping criticisms of the Minnesota court system as a whole, characterizing “any sitting judge” as opposed to the notion they’re accountable to residents of their jurisdictions. These posts also state Minnesota judges see themselves as political actors and flirt with unconstitutional abuses of power. In turn, Lindstrom has made claims the incumbent, Halverson, is beholden to St. Paul and out of touch with Greater Minnesota values.
Halverson said his candidacy rests in 30 years of experience and a reputation as a criminal defense lawyer that’s highly regarded among his peers. He noted that he’s been vetted extensively, both by members of the judiciary in St. Paul and local peers in the court system, before he was elevated to his current role through the judicial selection process.
“Every day that I come to work I make sure I’m prepared,” Halverson said. “I know what's going on with the cases on the calendar. People come into my courtroom, their concerns, issues and voices are important to me. … The most important quality is to let people know that they have a voice and they can be heard.”
Halverson noted he has more than 20 years of experience on Lindstrom, despite Lindstrom’s claims that Halverson lacks the right experience. Halverson also denounced Lindstrom’s accusations that he lacks the right demeanor for the bench, characterizing the Cass County attorney’s statements as hypocritical when Lindstrom’s campaign has been built on politically-charged, vitriolic mud-slinging from the beginning.
“It's interesting that he frames it that way,” Halverson said. “Just simply look at the tone and tenor of the discussion on his Facebook page, and I think you'll get a sense of demeanor. … His Facebook page speaks for itself. It's not for me to judge. The reality is judicial races are supposed to be nonpartisan. You can't talk about the issues. You're not supposed to take stands that would undercut your impartiality. If you compare his website to my website, and you look at what's there — it sends a clear message.”
In terms of Black Lives Matter and how racial issues factor in the justice system, Halverson said the judiciary must remain committed to its impartial role without caving into outside pressures, whatever those pressures may be. That being said, he noted that members of the justice system are mindful of the issues being debated in the national sphere.
“Voters need to know that the judiciary is aware of these issues,” said Halverson, who noted he’s a member of the Equal Justice Committee that advises the Minnesota Supreme Court. “One of the things that we need to look at, discuss, and attempt to implicate is ensuring that everybody has equal access to the court system, regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin, or political affiliation. … There's a great deal of discussion that goes on internally about how to accommodate those needs for people who feel that they're denied access.”
Halverson, 59, was born and raised in Alexandria, where he graduated high school before moving on to the University of North Dakota for his undergraduate degree and the Mitchell Hamline School of Law for his law degree. He moved to Brainerd around 1988 to serve as a clerk in the 9th District Court, before embarking on a short stint in general practice and criminal law and working for five years as a manager of the public defender’s office that served both Crow Wing and Aitkin counties. It was around this time that he established his own office, Halverson Law, in which he specialized in criminal defense. He worked at his firm until he was appointed to the 9th District Court in 2018 by Gov. Mark Dayton. Halverson has been acclaimed as a criminal law specialist by 17,000 of his peers in the Minnesota Bar Association, an honor typically bestowed to less than 60 lawyers. Halverson and his wife, Julie, enjoy a blended family of two children, two stepchildren and four grandchildren.
As the popularly elected attorney for Cass County, Lindstrom said his candidacy rests in restoring the local judiciary to a judge with the right experience and proper demeanor that better reflects the lakes area.
“I'm running for judge because I think I have the right experience to do it. I think I have the demeanor to do it,” Lindstrom said. “Being a judge is being able to apply the law objectively to the facts of the situation. ... I have to listen to victims' concerns, I have to listen to law enforcement's concerns, and I have to also objectively apply the law in that context.”
“I've done everything from speeding tickets to homicide cases,” he added. “I've done civil stuff, I've done defense work. I've worked with law enforcement and I've worked with victims.”
Stating that he doesn’t want to run on negatives and, instead, base his candidacy on his credentials, Lindstrom said he’s better fitted for the role than Halverson.
“I've known him for 10 years or more. I would say I have the more appropriate credentials for doing that job,” Lindstrom said. “I've seen things that I disagree with and I wouldn't be doing this if I felt it was being done correctly.”
Lindstrom said his candidacy is in opposition to a trend in many Minnesota courts where judges are acting with a vested interest in the outcome, not impartial arbiters.
“Our courts need to stick within their role,” Lindstrom said. “We need to have judges who aren't trying to create social change. They are trying to do some of these things that are more appropriate for the Legislature, those more political branches.”
In terms of Black Lives Matter and how race factors in the judicial system, Lindstrom said the issue is indicative of that trend — where the judiciary sees themselves as proponents for social change, not independent judges mandated to enforce the law. He said justices have to make impartial judgments on each case, without considering external factors or social outcomes.
“I think that actually creates more distrust for the process because people can't predictably go about their lives, they can't say ‘Hey the law says this, but when something goes into the system something else is coming out.’”
“I think you do have to make sure everyone gets a fair shake, irrespective of their background,” Lindstrom added. “I don't think the courts are going to solve all the issues of inequality in society.”
First appointed to be Cass County attorney in 2017, then re-elected by popular vote in 2018, Lindstrom, 38, manages five attorneys and associated staffers below him. He’s been attached to the Cass County attorney’s office for roughly 10 years, which follows a career stint in the public defender’s office in Brainerd and work in the courts in Hennepin County. He studied for his undergraduate degree in the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and earned his law degree at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. He currently lives in Chickamaw Beach, just outside of Pine River, with his wife, Lindsey, who also works as an attorney. They have three children, two girls and one boy, Lindstrom said, in a household that emphasizes self-reliance, frugalness, and traditional family values.