Martha Holton Dimick served eight years on the bench as a judge in the Fourth Judicial District after being appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton in 2012. Now in her first year of retirement, Dimick hopes to use her freedom off the bench to continue pushing for reforms in the judicial system.
Dimick is currently in the race for Hennepin County Attorney and will be on the ballot in November against Mary Moriarty, the former head of the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office. Dimick received 18% of the primary vote with Moriarty leading the packed field at 36%.
After receiving her law degree from Marquette University, Dimick worked in private practice for years before she was appointed to serve as the North Minneapolis community prosecutor by then-Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar, in 1999. A decade later she was hired as the deputy city attorney in Minneapolis, where she managed dozens of attorneys and staff in the criminal division. A few years later, Dimick would ascend to the bench and serve as a serious crimes judge. She makes her case for Hennepin County Attorney below.
MSR: What motivated you to join this race for the Hennepin County Attorney’s office?
MHD: I was a sitting judge, and I decided after George Floyd’s murder, a bunch of judges, we all wanted to make a statement to let the communities know how we were feeling or where we were at. But we were unable to do that because the rules of judicial conduct prevent us from saying certain things that would make it appear like we are not being fair or impartial or any indication of impropriety.
That really frustrated me. I’ve lived in North Minneapolis for 20 years, and I’m very invested in this community. While sitting on the bench, you’re lucky if you can affect one person at a time. Knowing that Mike Freeman was retiring, I thought that that would be a good place for me to be to effect these changes, so I made the decision to run.
MSR: How did you make decisions as a judge while on the bench?
MHD: Being a judge is a very difficult position to be in, and some people refer to it as being a referee or calling the balls and strikes. What you have to do is, you have to look at both sides of a case…and of course, we have to look at the law, and the decisions that we make are not that easily done just based on an overview.
You have to also incorporate some of the entities that we rely on, like the probation department and sentencing guidelines. Also, you have to look at pre-sentence investigation reports when it comes to sentencing a particular defendant. So, presiding over cases isn’t really a simple situation… That’s something that I don’t think a lot of people understand.
MSR: You’ve shared that part of why you entered this race was because of how the judicial standards limited your expression in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. What happened then and what were your frustrations?
MHD: All we did was approach the director of the board on judicial standards and get his opinion on how we should approach the situation. He gave us very specific guidelines, and with those guidelines, we went to the Supreme Court justices to get the permission of the chief Supreme Court justice, and we were unable to get her approval.
That really disappointed me because there were judges around the country that were making statements about this very tragic event, and here we are in Minnesota where it happened in Minneapolis and we couldn’t even make a statement regarding how it affected us as judges on the bench.
MSR: What sort of freedom comes from being off of the bench?
MHD: One of my main priorities is criminal justice reform, but criminal justice reform is going to entail coordinating with all of our justice partners—with probation, with psych services, with the county commissioners, the judges, lawyers, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. I don’t have all the answers, but I know all my justice partners have some valuable input that I know we can use to move forward.
MSR: What are some of the pitfalls in the legal system that you saw during your time as a judge?
MHD: A lot of the things that pop up in my head is that leniency is oftentimes not dealt with equally, and that’s something we have to make sure we are doing equitably for everyone. You have to understand that judges on the bench come from all walks of life. We try to do everything on a consistent basis and that can be improved, but the advantage that I have as a retired judge is that I have these relationships that I built with these judges on the bench.
I can still go back as a former judge and talk to them and speak to them and let them know what issues I think they need to address and vice versa.
MSR: What are some of the alternatives to incarceration that you think would be beneficial to people going through the legal system?
MHD: Well, we’ve got to increase our resources and get them through the systems a lot quicker. I’m very concerned about if we have people that have a drug addiction and need treatment, we’ve got to get them to those resources as quickly as possible.
Also with mental health issues, we have to address those issues immediately. We do have specialty courts that address those issues, along with PTSD for our veterans, and we do make those avenues available, but we have to increase our resources and expand them.
We also need to improve and increase resources for restorative justice and make diversion available to more people, but we have to have the resources to do that. We’re finding out that these alternatives to incarceration are extremely successful and the recidivism rate for people repeating crimes is very low.
MSR: What was your early experience in the legal system and how did that time inform your work going forward?
MHD: I started out on the property team, so I worked as a prosecutor over North, and I worked over North for a number of years. I collaborated with law enforcement at the time along with community organizations. We did impact crime at that point. This was 1999, sort of at the tail end of the “Murderapolis” years, and we were able to decrease crime to such an extent that the Minneapolis Police Department received a national award.
By the time I left the county attorney’s office in 2009, the homicide rate in Minneapolis was 7, and as we know last year it was 46. We can do the same thing again. We are at a lower level of police officers in Minneapolis, we’re going to have to find other resources to collaborate with, but we can do that again.
MSR: What would you change in the management of the county attorney’s office if elected?
MHD: We have to let people know what the heck we are doing. I really want to see more of the county attorneys in the communities. Letting people know that we work for them. We have to be more transparent with people. When I go out in the community at large in Hennepin County, it’s amazing how many people don’t often know what the Hennepin County Attorney really does, and I think that is a huge error on the county attorney’s part.
In terms of the Chauvin case, and some of the police shootings, we can’t make decisions and go out there and blatantly make statements that completely outrage the community. We really have to be careful and make sure we have all of the evidence and which laws were violated.
MSR: What would you do differently in the prosecution of the officers involved in George Floyd’s death or other situations of police brutality?
MHD: At this stage, I would keep those cases in the office. The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office has a wealth of smart, experienced attorneys. We have to hold police officers accountable for violations of people’s civil rights. We want to treat them the same way we treat any other offender who would commit a violent crime. But we need all of the information before we make that decision.
MSR: What are some things you’d like to do in office if elected to address public safety and help lower crime?
MHD: When we first heard the message “defund the police,” that was a terrible message to send to criminals. When we turn around, we’re missing 300 police officers. I’ll tell you, in my neighborhood that was just a death nail. We have to change the narrative and send the message that if you commit a crime, there are consequences.
If the offense is severe, like a violent crime involving a gun, murder, rape, or aggravated robbery as such, if the person is convicted, they’re looking at a prison sentence. But if it’s a lower-level crime or a lower-level felony that doesn’t involve a person, we give the person an opportunity to go through diversion and give them a second chance. I’ve done that a lot.
MSR: How would you like to see police interacting with the public?
MHD: I would love to see more community policing. It worked back in the day, and I think we need it in our trouble spots. I think we need them downtown and we need them in other areas where we’re seeing an increase in crime.
It just really pays to have the police walking the streets and letting people know that there’s a presence there and that they care. When you get to know folks and their kids, and you’re a regular person in the neighborhood, it makes a huge difference in terms of not only improving the trust in the police department but also in terms of tamping down the amount of crime in those neighborhoods.
MSR: How would you deal with the current opioid crisis if elected to office?
MHD: Well, fentanyl is a lot more deadly than opioids and yet it’s not sentenced, and the consequences are not as severe. I’d like to put more emphasis on getting the legislature to understand how potent fentanyl is, how dangerous it is, have it reclassified, perhaps. And we have to put more emphasis on targeting these drug dealers that are actually dealing with this very dangerous drug.
MSR: Why should voters come out and support you in this election?
MHD: Well, I think I’m the strongest candidate. I’m the most qualified candidate. I not only worked in the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, but I managed an office as a criminal deputy of over 60 prosecutors and support staff. I was appointed to the bench by Governor Mark Dayton, and I served on the bench for 10 years.
I got a very clear experience on how the system works. I’ve got lots of criminal justice partners that I’ve worked with and developed relationships with over the years. I also have the strongest message when it comes to public safety and criminal justice and police reform. I will do the best I can to improve the status of everyone in Hennepin County.
For more on Martha Holton Dimick’s candidacy, go to www.marthaforhennepin.com.
Abdi Mohamed is a contributing writer at the MN Spokesman-Recorder. He can be reached at email@example.com.