'We'll strive to be fair': Two of Becker County’s top legal eagles talk about upcoming judgeships
Fairness, listening skills and compassion are among the important traits that Tammy Merkins and Kevin Miller say they'll be taking with them as they transition from the attorney's table to the judge's bench.
It was announced earlier this week that Gov. Mark Dayton had appointed Merkins, Becker County Attorney, and Miller, an Assistant Becker County Attorney, as district court judges.
They will both serve Minnesota's 7th Judicial District, which includes the counties of Becker, Benton, Clay, Douglas, Mille Lacs, Morrison, Otter Tail, Stearns, Todd and Wadena. Merkins will be chambered in Moorhead, and Miller in Fergus Falls.
Together, the two have a combined 39 years of experience as lawyers, and they say that experience has helped prepare them for what's to come as judges.
Merkins has handled all sorts of cases in her 19 years in the courtroom. She's had a focus on serious felony crimes and child protection cases, but has handled the gamut, from misdemeanors to civil commitments, guardianship to child support, and beyond. She came to the Becker County Attorney's Office in 2006 after working at a law firm in St. Paul. She served as an Assistant Becker County Attorney for 10 years before becoming the county attorney in 2016.
Miller has also covered a wide variety of cases over his 20-year career, preferring the prosecutorial side of the law. After law school he worked at a firm in Hawley before opening his own practice in Detroit Lakes for a short time. He joined the county attorney's office in 2007.
Inspiration and motivation
The Becker County Attorney's Office has a unique history of its top legal eagles soaring off to new career heights.
Merkins' appointment makes her the fifth Becker County Attorney in a row to become a judge—a rare occurrence, especially for a smaller, rural county like Becker.
It's also fairly unique to have two attorneys from the same county office receive appointments at the same time, as has happened with Merkins and Miller.
Watching their Becker County colleagues excel in their careers and go on to become judges was part of what inspired Merkins and Miller to apply for judgeships themselves.
Early on in their careers, they said, they never would have guessed they'd one day be referred to as "Your Honor."
"I remember looking at the judges that were here about 13 years ago and thinking I'd be an attorney forever," said Merkin of her first days in the Becker County Attorney's Office. "But we've had some very good role models come before us who have been in these same spots and then gone to the bench, to help us and show us how to go through that process and really embrace that role of neutral magistrate, which really needs to listen to both sides and make a decision that's fair."
Miller said he came out of law school thinking he knew just about everything there was to know, but once he started actually practicing law, he quickly realized he still had a lot to learn. Working with people in widely different, often difficult situations was something he had to learn how to do as he went along. He admired other attorneys he knew who were appointed judges, he said, but for a long time he believed he'd never reach that level himself.
"I can say an emphatic 'No' on that," he said.
But, over time, things changed. Miller encountered a diverse variety of people and situations, and successfully dealt with some challenging cases. As he gained experience, he gained confidence. So, when he heard about multiple judgeship openings in the district this year, he felt ready to put his hat in the ring.
Merkins' experience echoes Miller's: "When you think you know everything when you start out, you find out what you don't know," she said. "But as you gain more experience and more knowledge and you go into the courtroom and get more comfortable with that, that all changes your perspective."
She said the things she and Miller have learned in the Becker County Attorney's Office, and the leadership they've seen there, will be invaluable as they move into their new positions.
"The way that we've been taught and led in this office has really served us well in transitioning to be a judge," she said. "We've both worked in this office, and what we do in this office affects people's lives every day. I think that background will apply to what we do on the bench, as well."
Becoming a judge
Merkins was the first of the two to put her name in the running for a judgeship. Miller planned to wait and apply at another time in the future, when he wouldn't be competing against Merkins, but when word got out that the district would be filling four open judgeships, instead of just two as previously thought, he talked to Merkins and got her blessing to apply.
"Having four openings in the district was unique, and I doubted I'd see that happen again during my career," Miller said. "I felt now was the time."
"We never felt like we were competing against each other, especially with four spots open," said Merkins. "It was actually nice to have somebody else there who was going through the same thing, to talk to and ask questions of."
The process of becoming a judge technically starts by becoming a lawyer; all judges must be lawyers and eligible voters, as minimum qualifications. From there, an interested lawyer must submit an application and letters of recommendation to the Commission on Judicial Selection, a government body that narrows down the applicant pool to a smaller number of semi-finalists and then, after interviews, finalists. Those finalists are recommended to the Governor, who interviews them personally before making official appointments.
According to laws that govern the selection of judges, judges are hired based on their level of integrity, maturity, health (if job related), judicial temperament, diligence, legal knowledge, ability and experience, and community service.
Both Merkins and Miller said their interviews with the commission were pretty formal and direct, a straightforward question-and-answer session. Their interviews with the governor, they said, were more relaxed and conversational.
Merkins was just interviewed by Gov. Dayton last Wednesday, and Miller last Thursday, so as of this week, the news of their appointments was still sinking in.
"I'm excited," said Merkins. "There are just a lot of things to process."
They both said their families have been supportive. Merkins and her husband, Eric Hausten, have two children, and Miller and his wife, Carol, have three. Because they have kids who are still in school, neither Miller nor Merkins plan to make a move right now due to their new jobs; they will both commute.
Merkins, who grew up on a farm in Ada, Minn., lives with her family in Detroit Lakes. Miller, a Moorhead native, lives in Hawley with his family.
A strong desire to 'get it right'
Merkins and Miller are enthusiastic about their upcoming judgeships, but they've also expressed sadness at leaving the county attorney's office.
"I'll miss where I'm at," said Merkins. "I'm really, really proud of everything we've done in this office and the accomplishments we've made."
At the same time, she said, she feels ready for the next chapter in her career, and wants to experience new challenges.
"It's going to be different, because we're not going into the courtroom every day arguing for our side and our position," she said. "Some days I think I'll miss that, and some days I think that's just fine. The biggest thing is that I'll really miss the people in this office."
"It's hard to leave a place where you like to work and people you like to work with," concurred Miller. "You become pretty close, going through a lot of tough cases together, and people having babies and all those types of things; everybody here has a very good working relationship, and to know you're walking out of a place you've enjoyed coming to...that's the hardest part for me."
As of earlier this week, neither one knew yet exactly when they'd be sworn in, though the judges they're replacing will both be retiring by the end of May. In the meantime, they'll continue to do what they can in their current roles while trying to make the transition as smooth as possible for their eventual replacements.
Miller said he currently has more than 120 files open, so he's been busy going through those and making detailed notes for the person who takes over his caseload. Merkins has also been making notes, writing down the day-to-day duties of the county attorney so the person tasked with filling her shoes won't run into any big surprises.
After they're sworn in, Merkins and Miller will go through a training process that will involve some job shadowing and mentor judges, but before long, they'll be on their own.
"When you become a judge, you're a little more isolated," said Miller. "Yes, we still have colleagues, but there'll be an adjustment."
"When you're a judge, partly because you now have a different role, it's different," said Merkins. "Both of us are going to a place where there are multiple judges and court staff, so we'll have the ability to build those relationships. But it'll be different."
One thing that won't change for either of them is their drive to do well, in whatever they do. They both plan to put their best feet forward as they move into their new positions.
"We both have a strong desire to make sure we get it right," Miller said.
"We understand that the decisions we're making affect people's lives," added Merkins. As judges, "we'll strive to be fair. I think that in order to do this job, you have to be compassionate and be a good listener and really understand what issues the individuals who come before you are facing, and listen to them. Given our background, I think those are qualities that we both possess, and that will help us."