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Newly elected lawyers bring fresh perspective to Capitol

New lawyer-legislators give their views on …

Legal skills in the Legislature

Rep. Eric Lipman: “As a lawyer on the House Civil Law Committee, I have an interest in making sure our laws are sensible and fair and lead to good results. I never had the illusion I would carry an important omnibus bill, but that I would do dozens of tiny things in committee. We, as lawyers, can help avoid horrible drafting errors, be precise in language, think critically about bills, and avoid unintended consequences. … We have an abiding affection or caring about what the words say and how they operate.”

Rep. Jeff Johnson: “Law background helps a lot when speaking out or presenting a point. We get practice at it, which is a big benefit for me. My litigation background helps me make arguments and answer tough questions I may not be prepared for when I’m sponsoring a bill.”

Sen. Satveer Chaudhary: “We have practice in cutting to the issue. It is helpful if we can translate that into plain speak. … Lawyers at the Legislature are perceived as a ‘problem,’ but in the end our opinion carries a lot of weight with colleagues.”

Sen. Myron Orfield: “Other members don’t like lawyers very much. They see our value in certain circumstances, but there is a strong feeling that lawyers make things too complicated. Your skill is usually appreciated by those who agree with your point.”

Sen. Michele Bachmann: “I believe my law background is a tremendous help. You can focus on primary source documents, ask questions to obtain accurate information, be a better debater. I am thankful to have that background.”

Balance of Legislature and family

Rep. Eric Lipman: “The other day as one of my colleagues was going home at 7 p.m., I felt the other half of my day was just beginning. I was writing briefs at the law office until 10-11:00 p.m. that night. … It is hard to be a help to the law firm, be a good legislator and be a good father. Balancing is tricky.”

Rep. Jeff Johnson: “I ended up taking a leave of absence from Cargill during the session. We talked through how the work could be done. Others in the law department pick up the slack for me. … I worked full-time during the campaign, with a few vacation half-days at the end. But then, I live in a district where I didn’t have to campaign 24 hours a day.”

Sen. Myron Orfield: “Like any substantive profession, it is hard to balance with the Legislature, particularly with children. They say the Legislature is part-time, but to do it right, you must be here a lot. And demands are accelerating dramatically in the private sector too. It is hard for people in both worlds to do it.”

Public image of lawyer/legislators

Rep. Eric Lipman: “Is there an overrepresentation of lawyers at the Legislature? The number of lawyers in the House decreased this year. Lawyers have a set of skills we want in the Legislature. It’s no different when you learn that more lawyers than MBA’s are company CEOs.”

Rep. Jeff Johnson: “In general, the public doesn’t hold lawyers as a group in very high esteem. You go to see a lawyer when something bad has happened to you. … At the Legislature, there are as many or more teachers here than lawyers.”

Sen. Satveer Chaudhary: “There is definitely a negative perception of lawyers by the public. Any person who makes an anti-lawyer comment is guaranteed applause at a public debate. We need to turn our language and substance toward what benefits the average person. We need to turn a disadvantage into an advantage.”

Sen. Myron Orfield: “There is a low perception of lawyers by the public. They think we are self-serving and not interested in the public good. But in my [South Minneapolis/Lakes area] district, my constituents like that I’m a lawyer. My district has lots of professionals and lawyers.”

Number of lawyers in Legislature

Rep. Eric Lipman: “It’s a different set of skills than being in the courtroom or spotting defects in an argument. A successful candidate must build coalitions and inspire volunteers. But if you care enough, we have a wide open system.”

Rep. Jeff Johnson: “There is a financial sacrifice. Getting to a corporate counsel position for many lawyers is an end goal. So, possibly giving this up or jeopardizing it for legislative service is not attractive.”

One thing can be said with certainty about the five new lawmakers who are attorneys — their roads to the Capitol were diverse. The three newly elected lawyers in the Senate include a mom of 20 foster children, the first Asian American elected to the Minnesota Senate and an adjunct professor teaching legislative process at a local law school. One new attorney-representative worked on the campaign of a current senator while he was in high school; the other moved from working as a session-only legislative assistant to elected House member in a span of just five years.

The common thread that binds all the new lawyer legislators is that they all want to use their legal training to make a difference.

In this week’s “Capitol News,” Minnesota Lawyer takes a look at the newly elected lawyers in the 2001 Legislature.

Rep. Jeff Johnson

Rep. Jeff Johnson, R-Plymouth, an attorney in the law department at Cargill, is a rarity — an in-house corporate lawyer serving in the Legislature. A labor and employment law attorney, he negotiates labor contracts around the country, handles labor arbitrations and performs significant phone counseling on harassment, disability and other employment issues.

Johnson says that Cargill was “very supportive” when he decided to run for the seat vacated by former Rep. Henry Todd Van Dellen. Johnson is taking a leave of absence from Cargill to focus on his lawmaking duties during the session. The leave may be slightly extended if his wife delivers their second child on her May 25 due date.

Johnson, age 34, has long been active in the Republican Party. As a high school student in Detroit Lakes, he worked on the campaign of Sen. Cal Larson, who still serves today. When Johnson returned to Minnesota after graduating from Georgetown University Law School in 1992 and liti
gating for a Chicago law firm, Larson introduced him to his new Senator, Gen Olson. Johnson become Olson’s campaign manager, and quickly became involved in local district politics. He was well-positioned to win Republican endorsement when the incumbent made a sudden announcement to step down from his seat. Johnson easily won the Republican-leaning district.

“This is a fantastic experience,” he says. “If you have any inclination to run, and an employer is willing to work with you, think about getting involved. It’s fun. The people are great people. You feel like you are accomplishing something.”

Johnson says his main reason for running was education.

“I’m not a fan of the graduation standards; I don’t think they really are high standards,” he says. The Education Committee and K-12 Budget division member also wants to look at student testing, negotiation of teacher contracts and alternative teacher compensation, like incentive pay. He adds, “I don’t think the answer to our education problems is money.”

A self-described fiscal conservative, he says he is comfortable with the size of Gov. Jesse Ventura’s overall budget, though his priorities might differ.

“I would like to be a voice for fiscal restraint,” he notes.

Rep. Eric Lipman

How often does someone pick up a successful law practice in Washington D.C. and come to the Minnesota House of Representatives as a session-only legislative assistant?

“The message is, if you work hard and show up here, there is a short distance from floater to member,” says Rep. Eric Lipman, R-Lake Elmo. Lipman, age 36, won the seat vacated by former Rep. Peg Larsen.

After graduating from George Washington University in 1989, Lipman clerked with the federal court dealing with government procurement disputes, where the government is the defendant. When Lipman subsequently went into practice, he naturally concentrated on lawsuits against the government arising from the purchase of goods and services.

When a friend convinced Lipman that he would like Minnesota as much as his native upstate New York, Lipman gave it a try in 1994. Even in the middle of a bitter cold Minnesota winter, Lipman was hooked. He sat for the Minnesota bar that summer.

After serving as a legislative assistant, he served stints as an opposition researcher for the Senate Republican caucus, as political director for U.S. Sen. Rod Grams (where he met his wife), as a researcher for House Republicans, as deputy campaign manager of Charlie Weaver’s Attorney General Campaign and as Deputy Secretary of State to Mary Kiffmeyer. It is not surprising that Lipman wants to take the lead on election reforms in the House, having been appointed chair of a subcommittee on election laws.

Lipman currently practices “about a quarter time” with the law firm of Mohrman and Kaardal, well-known in conservative political circles. The firm represents Greg Wersal in his federal lawsuit challenging restrictions on judicial campaigns. (Wersal last November lost his bid for a seat on the Minnesota Supreme Court — despite receiving a controversial endorsement from delegates of the Republican Party.)

Rep. Lipman readily acknowledges that he is an unabashed conservative.

“Following a conservative philosophy is the best expression of the greater good,” he says. “For me, having a limited government that sets priorities, is customer focused and cost effective is the best way to express a regard for the people who pay the bills.” Lipman says he also finds it troubling that Minnesota leads the nation in the number of two-earner families. Lipman believes having both parents working full time can result in negative effects on children, such as drug abuse, teen pregnancy and low test scores. “If we could lower the bill and people didn’t need to go into the workplace, they could spend more time with their families,” he states.

Lipman also is a supporter of HF 46, the “covenant marriage” bill. The bill allows couples who undergo rigorous counseling to voluntarily waive up front the “no fault grounds” for dissolution.

“I believe it is better to have people work on their problems in the context of marriage. People who stay married are healthier, with less depression and less disease,” he says. “Under ‘no fault’ divorce, all the incentives are for the non-cooperating party.”

Sen. Myron Orfield

Forty-year-old Sen. Myron Orfield, DFL-Minneapolis, is the veteran of the group, having served 10 years in the Minnesota House of Representatives before being elected last fall to the Senate seat held by retiring Senate President Allan Spear. Orfield currently splits his non-legislative time between teaching legislative process at the University of Minnesota Law School and working for a company that does demographic research for foundations. He is best known for his leadership in regional planning issues like land use and affordable housing, having published a nationally reputed book on the topic.

Before running for the House in 1990, Orfield was on law review at the University of Chicago Law School, clerked for Judge Gerald Heaney of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and practiced at the Minneapolis law firm of Faegre & Benson. He later handled appeals in the solicitor general’s office of the Minnesota Attorney General, even assisting then-Deputy Attorney General John R. Tunheim on cases at the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The Legislature is very fulfilling,” Orfield observes. “In the practice of law, sometimes you wonder if you are contributing to things. Are you improving the world? In the Legislature you do. Every member has an impact on the state and society. We need to bring more capable people into government.”

In the Senate, Orfield intends to focus his time on his passions — urban sprawl issues, affordable housing, Metropolitan Council issues, and making the tax system less cumbersome, including local government aids and tax sharing.

As the veteran, Orfield has seen the increased demands on legislators.

“Today we are inundated with meetings,” he explains. “There are more constituents to see you. More correspondence. More organizational meetings. There should be less of that. There should be more time to think about the big things. If you are meeting 12 hours a day, how do you find time to think about the bigger picture, like fixing the local government aid system, or streamlining the child care system? We spend so much time on endless small issues, it keeps you from accomplishing the bigger things.”

However, Orfield was also quick to point out that serving in the Legislature has been “one of the most rewarding and fulfilling things I’ve ever been involved in.”

Sen. Satveer Chaudhary

At age 31, Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, is the youngest current serving senator. First elected to the House of Representatives in 1996, he won election to the Senate last fall when Sen. Steve Novak stepped down to run for Congress.

Though Chaudhary was born in Minnesota, both his parents came from India. He is the first Indian-American Senator in the United States and the first Asian-American Senator in Minnesota. He believes his unusual name was an advantage in the election.

“The voters couldn’t pronounce my na
me, but they sure remembered it,” he quips.

Chaudhary graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1995, passing the bar the same year. He currently maintains a small solo law practice, and also does small business consulting in marketing.

“Making the law is much more fun than practicing it,” says Chaudhary. “I am a better legislator for having been a lawyer.” He served on the Civil and Family Law Committee one term in the House. In the Senate he splits his time between Education, Crime Prevention and Transportation. He says he loves the “variety” of issues in the Legislature. Chaudhary has a special interest in e-commerce law and cyber-issues related to law. He was appointed chair of a Senate subcommittee on education technology, where he hopes to focus on Internet access tools in K-12 and higher education, such as improving reading with the Internet. He is also authoring a bill from the Internet Crimes against Children Task Force, which would allow Minnesota law enforcement officials to obtain a search warrant in Minnesota against an out-of-state defendant allegedly involved in Internet crimes.

Asked if it was a tough choice to leave the House and run for Senate, Chaudhary replies: “Not at all. Being in the minority is difficult; you can’t get your bills heard. And [Senate Majority Leader] Roger Moe was an attraction. It is an honor to serve with him. He has vast historical, political, and public policy substance.”

Chaudhary says he has found Moe to be very approachable and willing to take his “freshman” opinion into account.

Sen. Michele Bachmann

Calling herself a “full-time legislator and full-time mom,” Sen. Michele Bachmann, R-Stillwater, has put her tax litigation practice on hold for her new career in the Senate. Bachmann had a heavily contested route to the Senate, defeating the more moderate 28-year veteran Sen. Gary Laidig in the Republican primary before winning the seat by defeating DFL lawyer opponent Ted Thompson.

After graduating from Winona State University, Bachman received her law degree in 1986 from Coburn Law School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, then obtained her LLM in tax law in 1988 from the College of William and Mary. She began law practice with the U.S. Treasury Office in Washington D.C., practicing in tax litigation. She later moved to St. Paul, practicing exclusively in U.S. Federal District Court in criminal and civil tax litigation.

Bachmann practiced law five years, then worked at home caring for five babies and 20 foster children. About 1998, she became a qualified neutral for mediation, hoping to return to law without going back to full-time litigation.

“I was just trying to get a business going when I was invited to a lecture about education reform,” Bachmann recalls. “I started hearing about this new education reform effort [Profile of Learning/School to Work initiative]. I became very concerned and started researching. I put in 3,000 hours of researching education reform. I put my occupational ambitions on hold.”

Bachman says she “found that the Profile of Learning does not appear to transfer core knowledge to students. We must return academic core knowledge to the educational system, in the realm of local control, not state control. If we are not focusing on core knowledge, then no amount of money will bring about academic excellence.”

Bachmann says that the Profile of Learning was just one reason that she decided to run for office. “My main priorities were tax issues, reducing spending, and maintaining a strong business climate,” she says. “My goal is to see the surplus returned to the taxpayers who paid it, and an across-the-board income tax cut. My law background is a tremendous help. I sit on the tax committee, and I have an understanding of business issues. I have life experience. Being trained in the law helps you to focus on primary source documents and debate. I’m thankful to have that background. I listen a lot and learn.”

Ember Reichgott Junge — a former state senator and an attorney — is Minnesota Lawyer’s legislative correspondent. “Capitol News” appears in Minnesota Lawyer on a biweekly basis during the legislative session.

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