Judge Metzen - Outside of the Box
By Frederick Melo 02/27/2009 11:35:10 PM CST
In May, Judge Leslie Metzen will lay down her gavel after almost 23 years on the bench and join the staff of the Community Action Council, a nonprofit human services agency in Burnsville, MN.
Early on in her judicial career, Metzen committed her first faux pas, and a visible one, at that. Metzen joined a court task force that had her rubbing elbows with prosecutors, defense attorneys and cops, trying to figure out a better way to handle cases of domestic abuse.
Many of her robed mentors were unimpressed that a fellow judge would step across the invisible line of the law and problem-solve with the same people who might appear before her in court. In fact, they seemed almost offended.
"I took a fair amount of criticism from my male colleagues, who thought it was improper," said Metzen, who was appointed to the bench in 1986 by then-Gov. Rudy Perpich, at the relatively youthful age of 37.
But history was on her side.
"As it turned out, a few years later, the chief justice for the Supreme Court mandated that every judicial district have a task force to look at how we handle domestic abuse issues," Metzen recalled. "That was probably my first foray into stepping outside the box a little bit."
On the Community Action Council, she intends to work on initiatives related to domestic violence and violence prevention in Scott and Dakota counties.
Among her priorities is figuring out how to keep women safe from chronically abusive husbands without breaking up families after isolated incidents.
"There's more and more empirical data that suggests putting people in jail and prison for long periods of time does not change behavior," Metzen said.
"I think we need a more multipronged approach," she continued. "There shouldn't be just one response for women. Not every victim wants or needs to go to a battered women's shelter. ... Maybe a period of no contact is appropriate, but we know that a lot of these families are going to get back together. Maybe there should be a continuum of responses available.
"Maybe we need to teach men and boys how to have healthy relationships in their lives, and I don't think we're doing that now in our communities."
Metzen's legal résumé includes a stint from 1999 to 2001 as the first female chair of the Conference of Chief Judges, which was then the policy-making group for district courts statewide. Her fellow judges elected her chief judge for the 1st Judicial District in 1997 and again in 1999.
In 2002, she established a community "housing court" for South St. Paul, West St. Paul and Inver Grove Heights homeowners accused of property code violations. In her six years with the court, she ordered one defendant held behind bars — an 88-year-old South St. Paul man who served four days in jail after missing several court dates and refusing to clean up his back yard.
The court closed last year after Metzen joined Dakota County's new drug court, which offers repeat offenders intense supervision and a range of incentives to stay clean.
She also has been active in restorative justice efforts, in which a defendant must meet with a victim in person to apologize and explain himself.