Hennepin County Chief Judge Toddrick Barnette was in his second year of law school at the University of Minnesota when a client insisted on speaking to him alone, away from the professor overseeing his work at the school's clinic.
Barnette had doubts about staying in law school after his first year buried in books. But when the client, who was Black, wanted advice from him, an inexperienced Black student, and not the white professor, his desire to be an advocate was cemented.
"Even though you're in law school and he knows it, he's trusting you to handle it," Barnette said.
Now 54, the veteran public defender, prosecutor and judge has begun a two-year tenure as the chief judge of Hennepin County, making him the first person of color to hold the post. He takes the helm during unprecedented upheaval, facing the challenges of COVID-19 and a global racial reckoning sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by four former Minneapolis police officers.
"He walked into a job with more on his table than probably any other chief in … decades, if not ever," said his longtime friend, Ramsey County District Judge JaPaul Harris.
Barnette will oversee the state's busiest judicial district, which has a maximum of 63 judges and saw 460,000 cases last year. He took over July 1 and he understands the moment.
"This is the time for us to really understand what our role is and what the community needs is to walk in here and feel like they're being heard," Barnette said, adding that "Black Lives Matter" is not complicated. "It's: Treat me like a person," he said. "Treat me like that person over there."
Barnette said he will push for more diversity in hiring.
"People at the counter should see people who look like them," he said.
Barnette will oversee the legal machinations leading up to and eventually the trial of the former officers charged in Floyd's death outside Cup Foods on May 25. He's made it a point to be present at every hearing to troubleshoot logistics so that judges, attorneys, court staff, defendants, news media and the public experience as few disruptions as possible.
He appointed a longtime colleague — Judge Peter Cahill — to preside over the cases. Cahill was the chief deputy in the Hennepin County Attorney's Office in 2004 and recruited Barnette from the public defender's office to work for the county attorney. Cahill said Barnette had the qualities he was looking for: "good demeanor, good work ethic and good judgment."
Harris, who is Black, got to know Barnette about 10 years ago, and said his election as chief judge was a long time coming. "It's important to have Black and brown voices at the leadership table," Harris said.
There are 17 Black judges in the state, Harris said, adding that they face the challenge of shouldering the expectations of the Black community while navigating misperceptions in the workplace.
"It's a duality," he said. "You're trying to make sure that you continue to represent and speak to the concerns of the [Black] community, and do that in a way that you can also be an effective judge."
Barnette, a native of Washington, D.C., was raised by a single mother and his grandmother. His father was in federal prison in Sandstone for much of his youth. "As a public defender, the people that I saw were like the people in my family, just a different name, a different state," Barnette said.
The judge met his wife, Gretchen Hoffman, when they were law clerks in the Hennepin County Public Defender's Office, where she still works. They have two minor children.
Barnette served two years in the County Attorney's Office before then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed him to the bench in 2006.
His law professor Steve Simon, who oversaw his clinic work and was passed up by the client who confided in Barnette, said he has the people skills to manage egos in the courtroom. "Todd is a mensch with sechel," he said, using Yiddish to describe wisdom, integrity and common sense.
Barnette has handled high-profile cases, including the murder trial of a 21-year-old in the random shooting of a bystander near Block E in 2006, and the trial of a man who was convicted of killing three people at a Brooklyn Park home day care in 2012.
His work goes beyond the courtroom. For the last 15 years he has been a mentor to students at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, where for the past three years he's been an adjunct professor.
Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Jabari Barner was a second-year law student at St. Thomas when he e-mailed Barnette an invitation to the Black Law Students Association's annual event.
Barnette couldn't attend, but he hired Barner for a two-year clerkship in his office and invited him to family Christmas parties. "He's a consummate professional and somebody I look up to," Barner said.
As Barnette's clerk from 2014 to 2016, Barner saw the judge run a friendly yet professional workplace.
Barnette was "always smiling, always has a positive attitude," Barner said. "But when it comes down to business … he can turn it on."
Before Barnette came to Minnesota for law school, his connection to the state was the occasional childhood trips to Sandstone's federal prison to visit his father. His chambers at the Hennepin County courthouse reflect someone now rooted in the community: He displays the nameplates of many retired colleagues, and their pictures intermingle with pictures of his family, friends and former clients.
No one needs to see diplomas or certificates, Barnette said.
"If the changes that we need to make in our system are going to happen," he said, "why not have me at the forefront for criticism or success?"