When Michelle MacDonald garnered the Republican endorsement for the state Supreme Court at the party’s state convention in Rochester last month, it was, she said, one of the most gratifying moments of her professional career.
“I went through the process very fully. I was all in. I loved the process. I loved talking to all the people and the delegates,” said MacDonald, a 52-year-old family law attorney with a private practice based in West St. Paul. “Sometimes you feel like you’re alone in your mission to help people. I didn’t feel alone. People got it.”
MacDonald, the only candidate who sought the party’s nod to challenge incumbent Supreme Court Justice David Lillehaug, secured the endorsement after being interviewed by members of the Judicial Elections Committee on the morning of the convention.
In a speech at the convention, Greg Wersal — the Republican activist whose 1998 federal lawsuit paved the way for partisan endorsements in judicial races — cited MacDonald’s pro-life stance, opposition to judicial activism, and small government views as reasons for Republicans of all stripes to support her candidacy.
“Some say Michelle has been controversial in the past because she’s gotten into arguments with judges because they failed to uphold your rights,” Wersal told the 2,000 delegates. “Well, you know what I say? That’s just the kind of person we need on the court.”
In her brief acceptance speech, MacDonald discussed few specifics about her goals as a jurist but highlighted her religious bona fides. “In the words of George Washington, it is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible,” she said. After hoisting a Bible above her head, MacDonald concluded her remarks with her campaign slogan: God Bless America, again.
MacDonald’s endorsement sparked no public debate at the convention. But in the wake of a Star Tribune report detailing MacDonald’s arrest in her hometown of Rosemount in 2013, some Republican officials are fretting privately over the party’s vetting process for judicial candidates.
The charges against MacDonald — fourth degree DWI, refusal to take a breath test, and resisting arrest — are still pending. According to court documents, MacDonald told the arresting officer that she was a “reserve cop” and said she would walk home. After refusing to submit to a field sobriety test, she was taken to the police station and read the state’s implied consent law, which requires suspected drunk drivers to submit to a breath, blood or urine test or be considered guilty.
During the traffic stop, MacDonald allegedly shook her head when asked if she understood, but declined to respond directly to other questions and asked to be taken before a judge. MacDonald, who maintains she was not drinking at the time of the arrest, said she intends to go to trial. She said a blood test taken at the hospital the following morning showed no alcohol in her system. That will likely not be admissible evidence, because state law requires such tests be taken within two hours of arrest.
In a post on the Star Tribune website, Michael Brodkorb, the former GOP staffer and political analyst, opined that the process that led to MacDonald’s endorsement is “fundamentally flawed and in desperate need for reform.” Brodkorb, who reviewed a videotape of MacDonald’s interview with the Judicial Elections Committee, noted that the proceedings — “from start to finish” — took less than 30 minutes.
Wants to eliminate family courts
In an hour-long interview at her law office in West St. Paul Friday afternoon, MacDonald spoke with Capitol Report about her candidacy, her longer-term aspiration to serve on the United States Supreme Court and her most immediate goal: eliminating a “broken” family court system that she views as too litigious, often corrupt and sometimes unconstitutional.
On the website of her nonprofit group, the Family Innocence Project, MacDonald writes that she worked as a lawyer in family court for 25 years before an epiphany led her “to the radical belief that the family courts should be abolished.”
Citing inspiration from her clients, grandson, the film “Jerry Maguire” and Pope John Paul II, McDonald then composed a “Miracle Mission Statement” toward making that belief a reality.
Asked to elaborate on those views during the interview, MacDonald was soon overcome by emotion. “These [issues] are of great interest to me,” she said, pausing to wipe her tears, “because families are being ripped apart by our court process. I’ve seen it over the last 27 years.”
After composing herself, MacDonald confidently asserted that her latest legal salvo — part of a long and bitter custody fight between a client and her ex-husband — will be “the case that eliminates courts for families all together. It will happen in [this] case.”
In the five-page petition, MacDonald asks the Minnesota Supreme Court to restore a lawsuit against a guardian ad litem who recommended that her client’s ex-husband be awarded full custody of the couple’s five children. The Minnesota Court of Appeals granted a motion to dismiss on the grounds that the guardian was not properly served.
That setback came on the heels of a series of other adverse rulings in the case, including an unsuccessful bid to have it heard by the U.S. Supreme Court and the dismissal of a federal lawsuit that MacDonald brought against the presiding judge in the custody trial, Dakota County Judge David Knutson. In that suit, she sought more than $330 million in damages for her client and her five children — more than $55,083,310.22 for each injured party.
Arguing that Knutson’s rulings amounted to “a violation of fundamental constitutional rights,” MacDonald alleged that “the tyranny has continued to assault this family ever since defendant David Knutson became involved.”
She further claimed in the suit that John and Mary Does 1-20 — unnamed government employees who work for police agencies and the courts — “have a secret agenda intent on family annihilation, societal breakdown, intimidation, emotional abuse, isolation, using children, economic abuse, coercion and threats.” The suit does not specify the damages sought from those parties.
On May 30, as MacDonald was making her pitch to delegates at the Republican state convention, however, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Nelson granted Knutson’s motion to dismiss the claim.
Knutson could not be reached for comment. But in a letter to MacDonald dated July 26, 2013 — and included in the voluminous case file MacDonald provided to Capitol Report — Knutson harshly criticized MacDonald’s tactics in bringing the suit, writing: “Obviously, serving me personally at home with this nonsensical document has no purpose other than to attempt to intimidate me. I expect that conduct will stop so we may have a fair trial to resolve the remaining issues in September.”
Asked to recount the events of that trial, MacDonald again became visibly emotional. Calling her client in the case “the strongest person I know,” she wept as she explained how the woman had previously received bad legal advice that led to the loss of her home and custody of her children.
“I wasn’t her attorney at the time. I never would have let that happen. She paid her attorneys hundreds of thousands of dollars for this travesty that I’ve been fixing for free,” MacDonald said through sobs. “But I am going to fix it.”
Incident at trial
According to MacDonald, the first day of the trial went “beautifully,” with her client testifying about her maternal routines. “In legal terms, she had the perfect custody case,” MacDonald said. The following day, the case took an unusual turn when MacDonald began snapping pictures in the courtroom during a break in the proceedings.
MacDonald insisted that was nothing out of the ordinary. “You can play foosball in the court when a judge isn’t there. You can take pictures. I’ve done it many times in adoption cases,” she said. After another pause in the proceedings, however, a court bailiff informed MacDonald she would be issued a misdemeanor citation for taking pictures in court.
“I went up to her during break, told her she was under arrest for the offense of Contempt of Court, told her that she was not going to be handcuffed, we just needed her name, date of birth and address for the ticket and she’d be released. She has refused. She is still refusing,” Sgt. Christopher Melton told the court, according to an official transcript of the proceedings.
In recalling that day, MacDonald said she was confused when the deputies approached her. “What I remember them saying was, ‘What’s your name? And what’s your address?’ I remember saying, ‘You know my name,’” MacDonald said. “Then there was some taunting, ‘Who do you think you are, Nelson Mandela?’ And then I started crying, like I am right now. And then it was like, ‘Oh, those are crocodile tears.’”
MacDonald said she has since obtained court video of the interaction but still doesn’t have the stomach to watch it. “It’s been described as sadistic. I did watch a little yesterday because I was going to make copies and put it in the Supreme Court [case] but then I thought I better not do that. I really don’t want the other side to see the video,” she said.
“I wasn’t some crazy lady resisting. I was just stunned,” she recalled. “You see these swarms of deputies like I’m some sort of criminal. It’s really sad. Three of them went into the elevator with me, which I’m finding is against the law.”
After being detained in a courthouse holding cell, MacDonald was transported back into the courtroom in a wheelchair. By then MacDonald’s client had departed, along with all the files. According to the court transcript, Knutson repeatedly asked MacDonald how she wished to proceed, with five consecutive inquiries eliciting no response from the attorney.
Eventually MacDonald did speak up. “I already objected to these proceedings. I objected to this witness. I’m sitting here in a wheelchair with no shoes on. My glasses are gone. My client isn’t here. My boxes are gone,” MacDonald said, according to the court transcript. “I object to all these proceedings and I’m asking again, you know, that the kids be restored to their mother and all her property be restored immediately.”
Knutson, who promptly overruled the motion, accused MacDonald of causing the disruption as a delaying tactic — a charge MacDonald denied, then and now.
Another court bailiff, Tim Gonder, was subsequently brought to the stand, where he testified that MacDonald had not cooperated with basic instructions from court personnel during her detention.
“She asked me to put her shoes and her glasses on,” Gonder said. “I advised her that was her job and she would not do it. The only reason she’s in a wheelchair is because she would not even stand up to be a part of these proceedings. We had to lift her from her seat and seat her in the chair to get her here.”
MacDonald was cited for contempt of court and obstructing legal process.
Charges later dismissed
In February, those two charges were dismissed. In a ruling, Judge Leslie Metzen said that deputies should have obtained a warrant before examining the contents of MacDonald’s camera for evidence of illicit picture-taking. In the same ruling, Metzen determined that MacDonald’s detention in lieu of a citation “was a violation of rules of procedure but was justified by defendant’s actions.”
In her interview with Capitol Report, MacDonald said she remains outraged by the conduct of the judge, the bailiffs, and the other attorneys present — who, she maintains, ought to have intervened on her behalf.
“What would I do? I wouldn’t sit there and let it happen. I’d say, ‘Your honor, what the hell are you doing to this woman? Why are you doing this to her and humiliating her in front of all these people?’” McDonald said.
MacDonald cried at points as she recounted the incident. As she composed herself, sobs could be heard emanating from another room in her law office, and she went to investigate. Upon returning, MacDonald explained that one of her clients, preparing for an impending trial, had become overwrought.
“This is what happens when people are dependent on attorneys,” MacDonald said. She then said she needed to cut the interview off and tend to her client.
In the view of some of MacDonald’s supporters, the news of her DWI charge — and her sometimes volatile interactions with other members of the bar and the bench — has little bearing on her suitability for the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Greg Wersal, who introduced MacDonald at the convention, said he is particularly skeptical of the drunk-driving charge, suggesting that MacDonald may have been the victim of an overzealous cop.
“She’s got a pretty strong personality. She probably told the cop, I’m not drinking and I’m not going to take your damn test,” Wersal said, adding the caveat that a jury will make the final determination.
“Whether or not this woman winds up with a DWI is almost inconsequential,” Wersal opined. “The real question isn’t whether she has a DWI. The real question is what kind of decisions she will make as a judge. Will she follow the Constitution or will she make it up as she goes along?”
Wersal said he still hopes MacDonald wins in November. “If she does, we’ll end up with a judge who knows what it’s like to be the person who is innocent but has gotten caught up in the system.”
Other Republicans appear less eager to mount a defense of the party’s anointed candidate. Doug Seaton, who chaired the Judicial Elections Committee, did not return calls. GOP chairman Keith Downey, who told the Star Tribune that most delegates were unaware of the charges against MacDonald, also declined to comment.
It appears unlikely that the party will —or can — rescind its endorsement without calling for a new convention.
For her part, MacDonald, reached by telephone on Monday, was unfazed by her recent spate of bad press. “It really has very little to do with the fact that I am the endorsed candidate, and it’s full speed ahead,” she said.