Ramsey County Attorney candidates John Choi and David Schultz on Wednesday participated in a forum that demonstrated different approaches to leading a large public law office. The two emerged from the primary election as the two candidates seeking to replace four-term County Attorney Susan Gaertner.
The forum was moderated by Ramsey County Bar Association President Paul Godfrey and a community crowd filled the Hamline University School of Law Moot Court Room to hear the candidates.
The two honed on experience during the opening presentations. Both said they have the ability to make the office perform well during a time when funding and resources are at a low point.
Choi, who is presently the Saint Paul City Attorney, said he is running because of his demonstrated success and experience with running an office of similar scope. He said the job requires an ability to think outside the box to get people to see outside of their own departmental perspectives to get on board for a bigger picture that benefits everyone.
He pointed to improvements in the restorative justice and diversion alternatives programs to prevent recidivism. He pointed to the proactive strategy of the gang injunction that first required legislative action followed by a long term effort with entire criminal justice system in order for it to work.
The International Municipal Lawyers Association honored Choi with the 2009 Joseph I. Mulligan, Jr. Distinguished Public Service Award – considered the highest honor in local government law.
Before entering public service Choi was a partner at Kennedy & Graven Law Firm. He focused on commercial litigation and then government relations. He was a partner at age 30 and at 35 was appointed to be St. Paul City Attorney.
Schultz has 25 years experience as a trial lawyer in all facets of law. He spent 14 years in private practice, 11 years as an Assistant State Attorney General in the Civil, Criminal, and Tax Divisions.
Schultz emphasized his broad experience with 20 years of leading teams of lawyers in high stakes civil litigation in trial and appellate courts. He has worked on everything from tax law to white collar crime, to prosecuting sexual predators. He also represented elected officials in high stakes civil litigation.
“There is not a legal issue that is foreign to me,” said Schultz.
He works with the Innocence Project Minnesota and said he helped raises more revenue that ever before and now offers healthcare to its employees. The office works on exonerating people they believe were wrongfully convicted and innocent including some death row inmates. They work on legal justice cases all over the world.
In addition, Schultz said he went to the Republic of Kosovo to take part in rewriting legal system in a new state that emerged from the civil war in the post-Yugoslavian ethnic enclaves. He also worked on the case to prove that Father John Anthony Kaiser, a Catholic Priest and Minnesota native, was murdered and did not commit suicide as the Kenyan government had claimed.
“I have a demonstrated commitment to justice and that is important to any prosecutor,” he added.
There were 10 questions in the one hour forum.
The first was to offer their view of what the primary responsibilities of the county attorney.
Schultz said the he would set the policies for the office on how they would follow guidelines with priority crimes, where they hold the line. He would also provide adequate staff support to carry out these policies appropriate for public law office attorneys.
“When the mission is about not money – then it is a motivating mission,” he said.
Schultz said he would lead by example, and intends to carry some of the caseload.
This differs from Choi’s view, who said it is more about overseeing systems leadership and developing long-term and complex outcomes. It is more than criminal prosecution, he said, it is about managing 340 employees and a $38 million budget.
Choi said the role is about improving efficiency, justice and coming up with prevention initiatives. He said it is also about providing legal advice for county officials, advice on risk management, and minimizing the legal risk to tax payers.
Another question was to give an example of where they provided a solution where leadership was needed.
Choi emphasized that it took convincing with state officials and the legislature to approve his now nationally recognized Driver Diversion program, where people who make a mistake are caught up time and again what he said is partially a system problem. He said that classes on financial and life skills led to 1,400 people getting their licenses back – with less that 10 failing out of the user-fee-based program.
Schultz said that as an Assistant Attorney General in the solicitor section, he was in a position to recognize which cases could be settled in the claims stage, and which presented legal issues not yet settled and how to move them forward for the best possible resolution in the courts.
Schultz said his experience at the state level prepared him to look for cases that best frame contemporary legal issues that need to be reviewed for the courts to act proactively. In this way the public attorney has a hand in developing the law to better serve the interests of the people.
Asked about their top priorities, Schultz said it is about protecting vulnerable populations, such as children that are victims of sexual and physical abuse and victims of domestic violence. He would establish a special unit on the unique issues of crimes toward senior citizens, including a hotline for reporting abuse.
His second priority is with crimes involving guns and gang violence. He would use racketeering laws to help break apart gangs, and enhance sentencing that targets violent offenders. He would support programs that keep youth out of gangs.
Choi said public safety is his priority and would pursue serious consequences for violent crime. He said the limited resources and ongoing pressure to downsize would require innovative approaches to address gang violence and domestic violence. He would also look for better response times at all levels from 911 to the courts and seek better intervention outcomes with youth in the system.
On the issue of plea-bargains, both said it is important to distinguish what is appropriate in evaluating the context of the charges and if it balances out with the goals of justice policies.
Choi said it is about evidence and the risk of dismissal is one factor. Schultz said that in evidence based base plea-bargains he would seek at least one count of the highest charge.
The two differed mostly in expressing the importance of trial experience and to what extent they would work directly in the courtroom on cases as the County Attorney.
Schultz said there is no similar experience to working a jury trial. He would be a active and supervising lawyer with 20 years of legal experience on several levels.
Choi said that it is important that he has litigation experience but that the chief prosecutor’s role is to effectively lead and manage a large office. He said many things occur daily that involve his discretion, from motivating employees, to overseeing several projects and ensuring the overall public goals are achieved.
The two both spoke about the importance of developing best practices and of the willingness to accept criticism and feedback to make the department more effective. They differed in how they would directly participate in the courtroom. Schultz would be more hands one, while Choi said in this role, “the boss going to trial is not always the best thing in that world of work.”
In closing, Choi said this is an opportunity for a chief prosecutor to do a lot of good things and deliver better public safety results, justice and reform. He said that as a “servant-leader” this would be a great environment to work with stakeholders throughout the system for better outcomes.
Choi (www.votejohnchoi.com) came to Minnesota from Korea at age three in 1973. He graduated from St. Thomas Academy, Marquette University, and Hamline University School of Law. He is also a Fellow at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He and spouse, Youn, have a 2 year-old son.
Schultz said that whoever has held this county office has tended to hold it for as long as they can stand to run for reelection. He emphasized that he has no other political ambitions and would not be running for mayor or governor, and would serve as long as the people of Ramsey County saw fit to keep him in the role.
Schultz (www.schultzforcountyattorney.com) also emphasized that he has not party affiliation and without the assistance or endorsements of any party he would not be pressured for favors if elected.
Schultz is a graduate of Carleton College and Stanford University Law School. He and spouse, Trudi, have three school age children.