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Attorneys of the Year: Cathryn Middlebrook

In her more than 30 years as a defense attorney, Cathryn Middlebrook has become one of Minnesota’s leading public defenders.

The first woman to become chief appellate public defender, Middlebrook played a pivotal role this past year in a case where the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled the state’s test refusal statute unconstitutional as applied to defendants’ refusals to submit to warrantless blood draws.

“Middlebrook had a leading role in that issue, and was instrumental in the result in State v. Trahan,” said Rachel Bond, an assistant public defender in the Office of the Minnesota Appellate Public Defender. Bond’s comment came in her nomination of Middlebrook for Minnesota Lawyer’s 2016 Attorneys of the Year.

For her part, Middlebrook was gratified by the high court’s ruling in Trahan, noting the high-profile case took three years to litigate. “That’s perseverance,” she said. (The constitutionality of Minnesota’s test refusal statute had been the subject of extensive litigation in criminal cases in recent years.)

Another highlight in 2016 for Middlebrook: Her work on the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission that resulted in what she called “much overdue” changes to the guidelines for drug sentences. Following the Commission’s work, the state legislature passed the Drug Sentencing Reform Act.

Appointed in 2013 as Minnesota’s chief appellate public defender, the first woman to hold that post, Middlebrook oversees a staff of 38 attorneys. Although the office’s manager since 2001, Middlebrook still personally represent clients in district and appellate courts across the state, including assisting district public defenders with various pretrial issues.

Besides being a public defender, Middlebrook has been an adjunct law professor for more than 20 years at the University of Minnesota, William Mitchell and Hamline (now merged as Mitchell Hamline) law schools where she has directed a variety of legal clinics.

“Growing up I was taught both a strong work ethic and a powerful appreciation for justice and fairness,” said Middlebrook, a U of M Law School graduate.

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