BY GABE LICHT
MINNEAPOLIS, MN Sitting in the dining room of the Governor’s Mansion, Lisa Janzen took in the beauty of the Minnesota landmark.
But, she wasn’t there for a tour.
She was there to interview with Gov. Mark Dayton as a finalist for a judge position in Minnesota’s Fourth Judicial District, her second such interview.
“It was very daunting, but it was wonderful,” Lisa said. “It was a pleasure to meet with him.”
Not surprisingly, her father, Jim Janzen, came up in the conversation.
“I had lost dad the year earlier,” Lisa said. “I spent a lot of time in my interview talking about my dad and the values I got from him growing up. The governor was responsive to that.”
Two of Dayton’s priorities are addressing chemical dependency and mental illness. Lisa is familiar with both issues.
“I had spent the last eight years working in drug court,” Lisa said. “I’m a trained drug court specialist, so I have a lot of background in that. I think that was a real asset to me. That’s something he recognized as important in a judge he wanted to appoint . . . We talked a lot about that.”
That interview ultimately led to Lisa’s appointment as a judge in the Minneapolis-based court July 11, 2016.
“We’re pretty proud of her,” Lisa’s mother, Peg Janzen, said. “We just hope the principles she was raised with in the community of Delano rubbed off on her and helped to instill that community responsibility.”
Lisa said she learned a strong work ethic and commitment to public service from watching her parents volunteer at church, with the Delano A’s amateur baseball team, and as 4th of July parade organizers.
“Dad’s job wasn’t in public service, and neither was mom’s, but outside of work, nothing was more important than a commitment to the community and your neighbors, and serving the public,” Lisa said.
Though she doesn’t believe anything about growing up in Delano influenced her to work in the legal field, she said the quality education she received and the extracurricular activities available to her on the volleyball court and gymnastics gym laid the foundation for her to be successful in her career.
Peg said it was during those high school years when her daughter confided in her and Jim that she would like to pursue a legal career.
“She didn’t know if she could get through college, let alone law school,” Peg said. “She was always a bit of an overachiever.”
Not only did she graduate from University of St. Thomas with majors in international relations and Spanish, but after considering a career in foreign service, she went on to William Mitchell College of Law, where she graduated magna cum laude.
“I knew I wanted to concentrate on constitutional law, civil rights, and civil liberties,” Lisa said.
That didn’t surprise her mother.
“She always went for the underdog, even in high school,” Peg said. “ . . . She always tended to be concerned about the less fortunate.”
Lisa’s first job in law school was at the Dakota County Attorney’s Office.
“I was a law clerk in the prosecutor’s office, so I kind of fell into criminal law, but I loved it because it’s very real,” Lisa said. “It’s about dealing with day-to-day issues, problems, and mistakes people make.”
That experience led her to become a public defender, a career choice her parents weren’t sure about.
“That was something that, at first, her father and I had a hard time dealing with because she was defending people that we couldn’t understand how she could stick up for them,” Peg said. “It took us a while for us to understand how necessary it is. It’s an integral part of our judicial system that everyone is entitled to their day in court.”
Lisa said she learned a lot in the public defender’s office.
“I’ve had a lot of trials,” Lisa said. “I’m very comfortable in the courtroom. I know the rules of evidence, litigation, and criminal law.”
She considered being a public defender her calling at the time.
“We believe so strongly in the fabric of what we’re doing: just defending the Constitution, making sure everyone has a fair trial, and due process,” Lisa said. “It’s about checks and balances. You’re a check on the judge and police and legal system.”
She defended public defenders, who she said are often thought of in a negative light.
“Public defenders, almost everywhere, are the best attorneys available,” Lisa said. “They’re experts at what they do. I agree that the perception that a public defender won’t work hard for you is absolutely not true . . . Our criminal justice system couldn’t run without them.”
That’s because they handle more than 90 percent of cases, she said, adding that public defenders, prosecutors, and judges all have very high caseloads. Personally, she had between 100 and 150 cases at a time as a public defender. As a judge, she currently has a block of 170 cases.
Initially, she handled misdemeanors for the city of Minneapolis. As of Jan. 1, she is assigned to felony cases.
Judges strive to be consistent in how they handle every case, though no two cases are the same, she said.
“You always follow the law,” Lisa said. “That’s our job to interpret the law and follow the law. Within the law, the facts in the law are many shades of gray so, sometimes, we have to make findings about facts and interpret the law where there are areas of gray. Or, within sentencing, frequently the law gives us discretion.”
Several factors have to be weighed each time.
“First, you look at the guidelines, then the seriousness of the offense, the impact on the victim, and public safety, but then you also look at the offender,” Lisa said. “Can he be rehabilitated? Will treatment make a difference? What are the odds he’ll reoffend? You have to use your best judgment. It’s not easy.”
Determining whether prison or probation is the better sentence is an especially difficult decision.
“The times I’ve had to send people to prison or make that decision have weighed heavy on me,” Lisa said. “It’s not a decision I make lightly or any of my colleagues make lightly.”
She said she wants the public to know juries do not take their responsibilities lightly, either.
“The system of having a jury trial is the fairest way to determine a person’s guilt or innocence, and I’ve always been really impressed with our jury system, whether that be as an attorney or a judge,” Lisa said. “People should feel very confident in our jury system. Overall, it’s amazing what a good job jurors do. Your average person has a lot of common sense and life experience and does a good job determining facts from falsehoods and what’s fair and not fair.”
Just like jurors, Lisa is a public servant, and she enjoys serving in this capacity.
“I love it,” Lisa said. “It’s an honor. I feel very blessed. I’m a public servant, but I’ve always been a public servant, even as a public defender. I’m still a public servant in a different role.
“I get a better view and a better parking spot,” she added laughing, referring to her ninth-story view of US Bank Stadium and her parking spot under the busy streets of downtown Minneapolis.
She has worked her way up to her current position. Along the way, she has gained an appreciation for the criminal justice system, and encourages others to do the same.
“I think people should have a lot of confidence in the court and judicial system,” Lisa said. “I think, unfortunately, people don’t. Those of us involved in the criminal justice system are working really hard to change that.”
What she discourages is basing an opinion of the criminal justice system on what one sees on TV.
“Your impression of the judicial or criminal justice system should not be driven by what you see on TV,” Lisa said. “I never watch law or cop shows for that reason, except I liked to watch ‘Boston Legal’ because James Spader and William Shatner were so funny . . . When I go home, I watch things that have nothing to do with crime or the courts system.”
With a career dating back to 1994, she has gained experience she can share with others.
“I think the first thing people should know is . . . they don’t have to decide they want to pursue it until they are a junior or senior in college,” Lisa said.
She added that going to law school can lead to a number of careers, from patent attorney to public injury lawyers.
Though she was intimidated by the thought of law school, she hopes others won’t be.
“Don’t ever underestimate yourself,” Lisa said. “With a lot of hard work, you can achieve anything.”
Her mother echoed those sentiments.
“You don’t have to be the banker’s son to be successful,” Peg said. “Even the body shop owner’s daughter can do it.”
So, does this body shop owner’s daughter aspire to a higher position?
“I don’t think she’s done yet,” the elder Janzen said.
But, Lisa herself disagrees with that assessment.
“I have no other aspirations. I want to put my kids through college and retire,” she said of her freshman named Cade and senior named Noah. “ . . . I’m an elected official, and if the good people of Minnesota decide I should stay here until I retire, I’d be grateful.”