Home / All News / Friedman: It’s now an honor to be a public defender
Fred Friedman, a public defender in the 6th 
Judicial District for 
more than 40 years, 
retired last month. (Submitted image)
Fred Friedman, a public defender in the 6th Judicial District for more than 40 years, retired last month. (Submitted image)

Friedman: It’s now an honor to be a public defender

Fred Friedman loves Duluth, and the feeling is mutual. In many, perhaps most, communities the public couldn’t pick its chief public defender out of a lineup.  But in Duluth Friedman’s lunch earlier this month at Valentini’s Vicino Lago was continually punctuated by well-wishers congratulating him on his retirement after 42 years as a public defender, about 30 as the chief.

Perhaps that’s because he came to Duluth with his parents on his 17th birthday, went to college at the University of Minnesota Duluth, married a woman from Duluth 43 years ago and raised two sons, and incidentally became only the second chief public defender in the 6th District in 50 years. (The other was John Durfee, who was appointed to the bench by Gov. Rudy Perpich).

Friedman’s last day of work was March 28. He is succeeded by Dan Lew, the first Asian Pacific American to be appointed a chief public defender in Minnesota.  Lew was with the office from 1996 to 2001 and returned in 2006.

Friedman grew up in the civil rights era, the son of solid leftists and descended from ancestors from Belarus, Ukraine and Romania. His father traveled to work sites and farms to regulate child labor laws. “I’m old enough to remember Emmett Till,” Friedman said.  Till, who was from Chicago, was murdered in 1955 at the age of 14 in Mississippi.

‘Argersinger’ and ‘Gideon’

Friedman graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School and became a public defender in 1972, the year the U.S. Supreme Court decided Argersinger v. Hamlin, which extended Gideon v. Wainwright to any case where the defendant faced incarceration.

The cases created opportunities for public defenders — to work for the counties but pay their own overhead. Opportunities to cool their heels in courtrooms while judges pushed them to the end of the docket, along with legal aid lawyers, after the privately paid lawyers had been taken care of.

There were other opportunities, Friedman recalled. The few women lawyers around had the opportunity to be referred to as “lawyerettes” or “prosecutrixes.” Lawyers who were not part of the home team had the opportunity to see their clients treated more harshly. Friedman recalls once getting a phone call from a terminally ill judge in another county who apologized for giving a harsher sentence to Friedman’s client than the client of a local lawyer.

Now public defenders and legal aid lawyers have a seat at the table when policy is made, he notes. “I’ve worked hard to make it an honor to be a public defender. Now when there’s an opening we get over 100 applications.”

He says he retired for three reasons: Everything is going fine in the office, he’s worried about keeping up with technology, and he’s tired of begging the Legislature for money.  “I don’t like competing with other worthy causes like education and health care,” he said.

The topic of begging the Legislature for money recalls the recession years starting in 2008. He had to lay off 10 lawyers. It was the second time he had to lay people off (the first was in 2000) and he promised himself he would never do it again. He would quit first.

“It was so hard. It was wrong.  Everybody said we had no money but we had no trouble building hockey rinks and giving raises to University of Minnesota coaches,” Friedman said. “Every day was a decision — what are we not going to do today? There’s no expression stupider than, ‘We’re going to have to do more with less.’”

‘Disarmingly charming’

6th Judicial District Judge Mark Munger has known Friedman since 1964, when the Friedman family moved to West Duluth. They were told they should live in that part of the city. It was more blue-collar and more DFL-inclined. The family could not find a house, so they spent several months at the Willard Munger Motel, owned by the judge’s uncle and now the Willard Motel.  Nobody suggested they look for a house in the eastern part of Duluth. “They had to be kept in the western part,” Munger joked.

Friedman took Munger to his first Twins game in 1965.  He was amazed to see Friedman keeping book on the game but he soon caught on and still has his scorecard from the game.

Munger became the prosecutor for the city of Proctor and squared off against Friedman many times. “I don’t think I ever beat him. One time he convinced a jury his client wasn’t drunk, he was just high on paint fumes.”

Munger was elected to the bench in 1998 and for his first major criminal trial Friedman defended and John DeSanto, who is now also a judge, prosecuted. “It was absolutely a pleasure,” Munger recalled. “They fought tooth and nail but with decorum.” It was Munger’s first case with the then new rule giving the prosecution a rebuttal closing argument. DeSanto gave about a 10-minute argument and so Friedman’s closing was also about 10 minutes.  Then DeSanto had his rebuttal — 45 minutes.  “Fred was a seething, boiling mountain. He was ready to have a heart attack,” Munger recalled.

DeSanto remembers that trial, and that after it Munger imposed a 10-minute limit on rebuttal, still called the DeSanto rule.

DeSanto and Friedman tried about two dozen cases together. “You knew you’d be in for a battle. Fred would come up with a theme and hammer on it ad nauseam.”

He recalled a welfare fraud trial that he was trying to settle.  Friedman said it had to go to trial.  When DeSanto objected that he was inexperienced and didn’t know how to try the case, Friedman said, “I’ll help you through it.”  By which DeSanto emphatically does not mean that Friedman threw the trial or even that he actually helped the prosecution, he said.  It was just  the kind of thing Friedman would say.

The problem for the prosecutors is that jurors loved Friedman, said St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin. “He’s disarmingly charming and effective.  When you tried a case with Fred you knew it was a real contest. There was never a lack of passion,” Rubin said.

Rubin is also from West Duluth.  He believes he and Friedman are the only lawyers the neighborhood pro-duced and they are both very proud of it.

Rubin also describes Friedman as “courageous” for his support of the First Witness Child Abuse Resource Center, which is a nurturing environment in which allegedly abused children can be interviewed. Not only did he support it, he partnered with it and the defenders help train interviewers to be effective. “He understands that good, fair interviews protect the rights of the accused,” Rubin said. The center is the only place like it in the country that has defenders working with it, Rubin said. “I’ll always be grateful to Fred.”

Looking for work

Friedman likes to teach and mentor young lawyers, and he travels to various trial schools. He’s looking for work. “It’s going to be hard. I don’t want to bother my wife all day.”

He says there are two things he is not going to do: He is not going to compete for a buck against lawyers he trained, mentored and coached; and he is not going to live in a state without a state income tax.  “Minnesota educated my family and supported me, I’m going to support Minnesota.”  He intends to continue to call the metro area “the ring of knowledge,” and also continue his efforts to get that phrase into a Supreme Court opinion. He’s going to play golf, travel and hang out with his family.

When he comes to traveling, State Public Defender John Stuart said that Friedman likes to drive and the farther away the better.  Once he loaded up a state van with defenders and they drove to Kentucky for training. They also took in Mammoth Cave and Friedman’s favorite restaurant, the Waffle House. “I learned that my favorite food should be pecan waffles with a side of pork chops,” Stuart said.

And then there’s baseball.

Friedman says he’s loyal to the Twins in the American League, no matter how bad they are, and goes back and forth between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburg Pirates in the National League. On Monday, April 7 — the day of the Twins’ home opener — he predicted the Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers would play in the World Series.

He is a resource for anyone who needs a baseball question answered, said Judge Gary Pagliaccetti. DeSanto says Friedman will answer any sports trivia question, even about hockey, which he says he hates.

“He’s passionate about the Twins whether they are good or bad,” DeSanto said. “He’s over the top.”

One comment

  1. Judge Kevin Burke

    There are a lot of lawyers who make a difference for their communities and a few lawyers who have an infectious passion for justice. Fred Friendman’s career was marked with both effectiveness and passion. One of the greatest things that happened in my professional life was getting to know Fred and to become his friend. Although he is now retired I highly doubt if he is done making a difference for his community and I know that there is no way to extinguish his passion. That is good for all of us.

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