Leaving the bench

Photo by Deb Gau Judge Leland Bush will be retiring this year, after a career spanning 12 years as a judge in Lyon County District Court and 25 years as a lawyer in southwest Minnesota

MARSHALL — Judge Leland Bush wasn’t certain what really made him decide to apply to be a judge. But as a lawyer practicing in southwest Minnesota, he did think his experiences could bring a good perspective to the job.

“I thought it was important that someone from here be a judge here,” he said. Several Lyon County District Court judges had worked as lawyers in the area, but Bush had also grown up in the Russell area. And, he said, “I thought, from my law practice, I was familiar with the population we would serve.”

This week, Bush will be retiring after 12 years on the judicial bench. He says it’s been both a challenging and a rewarding experience.

“For the most part, it’s certainly been a positive experience. It’s been a learning experience,” Bush said.

Bush has been a lifelong resident of southwest Minnesota.

“I grew up with a Russell address,” he said, and graduated from Russell High School. He attended Macalester College in St. Paul, but he came back to southwest Minnesota, graduating from what is now Southwest Minnesota State University in 1973.

“I was not someone who was always going to be a lawyer. My undergraduate degree ended up being in biology,” Bush said. However, he said, “I couldn’t see myself in a laboratory day after day, so I started looking for something that I could do and be employed and be here.”

Bush went on to graduate from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1976. After graduation, he became an attorney in the law office of David Watson in Tyler. In 1979, he started his own business as an attorney.

It wasn’t until he had been a lawyer for 25 years that Bush applied to be a judge.

“I recall I had some folks suggest I consider that,” he said. He talked it over with the staff at his law office before deciding to apply.

“I sat down with the staff and said, ‘I just found out. Applications close at the end of the week. This would be a big deal, what do you think?’ “ he said. “The staff kind of huddled, and said, ‘Yes, you should do it.”

The process to apply to be a judge involves interviews with a screening committee and with the Minnesota governor, Bush said. It was a long process for him, but in 2002 Bush was appointed to be a judge by Gov. Jesse Ventura.

“It’s a pretty humbling experience,” he said of being sworn in.

In his years as a judge, Bush said he’s seen and learned a lot.

“It’s a tremendous educational experience, in the law but also in people, and culture, and life,” he said. Over his time as a judge, he said, “I have developed concerns about what I see as a widening wealth gap, and I also have concerns about what I see as a developing class of people who are living in increasing amounts of poverty, and the difficulties they have.”

In court, Bush said, you often see people in difficult situations. “You have to be patient and tolerant, and try to be calm. It’s important to be pleasant.” People in court — especially those representing themselves — usually have enough to deal with without a judge being rude, he said.

In his time as a judge, Bush said, “We had some significant cases, but the truth is they’re all significant,” especially to the people involved.

There were some cases that stood out in Bush’s memory. One of the more recent ones was the 2016 trial of Josue Robles Fraga, a Worthington man who was accused of killing his 2-year-old niece in 2008. The trial didn’t have local connections, Bush said, “But it was of significant interest within the court system, because it was being tried for the third time.”

Fraga was initially convicted of murder in 2009, but the discovery of new evidence overturned his conviction, and he was granted a new trial. Fraga’s second conviction, in 2013, was vacated after a successful appeal citing juror bias. The third trial got a change of venue from Nobles County to Lyon County.

At the end of the third trial, Fraga was convicted of five counts of murder, and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.

But Bush has also heard many cases that are less high-profile, from traffic offenses to civil and family court cases. Adoptions are a positive experience to preside over, he said.

Bush has also been part of Lyon County’s drug court program, which started in 2009. Drug court offers an alternative to prison for qualifying drug offenders, and focuses more on drug treatment and rehabilitation.

It takes a lot of people to make a courtroom run, and Bush said he’s glad to have worked with everyone at the Lyon County District Court.

“I have enjoyed the opportunity of working with good staff here in the Court Administrator’s office, and I have an excellent court reporter,” he said.

Bush said his official last day as a judge will be Friday, but he will be continuing to work while a judge is appointed to replace him.

In May, Gov. Mark Dayton’s office announced that the Commission on Judicial Selection would be searching for applicants to fill the vacancy left when Bush retires. Interviews with judge candidates are scheduled later this month, the governor’s office said.

“It’s been challenging but also rewarding,” Bush said of his time as a judge. “I expect there are going to be some good and strong candidates.”

A reception will be held for Bush at the Lyon County Government Center on Friday, from 4 to 6 p.m.