By Rachel Kytonen
Since 1990, Isanti County District Judge James Dehn has demonstrated his commitment to preserving constitutional democracy and the rule of law through high school mock trial.
Due to his work with mock trials, Judge Dehn recently received the Minnesota State Bar Association (MSBA) Civic Education Committee Citizen Lawyer Award. The award was presented at the Minnesota State Bar Association Assembly on Dec. 16.
Judge Dehn was nominated by MSBA Mock Trail Program Manager, Emily Reilly, for his 23 years of coaching or judging high school mock trials at the state and national levels and for his years of serving on the MSBA mock trial board.
“Judge Dehn endlessly lends his time and talent to this program to make it one of the very best in the country,” wrote Reilly in her nomination letter. “Judge Dehn is forever encouraging lawyers and judges around the state to become involved in mock trial. He especially encourages his colleagues to become involved as coaches so that students in their community do not miss the opportunity to participate in Mock Trial.”
The Citizen Lawyer Award is presented annually by the Civic Education Committee’s Policy Subcommittee in recognition of extraordinary contributions to promoting civic education and commitment to preserving constitutional democracy and the rule of law.
Judge Dehn said he didn’t even know he had been nominated for the award, and was deeply honored.
“It is such an honor to be part of an adventure of introducing high school students since 1988 to the wonder of the courtroom and our unique court process which I think is the best in the world,” Judge Dehn said. “I actually got into law while in high school when I got the opportunity to sit in on a mock jury trial at the University of Minnesota. It was so realistic, we thought it was real. I was very impressed by that experience as a high school student.”
Judge Dehn, who was appointed to the bench in 1987 by Gov. Rudy Perpich, has volunteered as a mock trial coach for Cambridge-Isanti High School from 1988 to 2009, as a Minnesota High School Mock Trial judge since 1990, and as a National High School Mock Trial judge since 1992. He has served on the MSBA Mock Trial Advisory Board since 2006.
As part of his work on mock trials, Judge Dehn has traveled to Chicago, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Nashville, Omaha, Phoenix, Denver, St. Louis, Albuquerque and more. While in Nebraska in 2001, Judge Dehn had the honor of sitting at a dinner table with Warren Buffett, who had spoken at a mock trial assembly for 600 parents and students.
“I remember Warren Buffett’s message to the students and parents was, ‘when you are born in America, you have won the lottery,’” Judge Dehn recalled.
In Judge Dehn’s office at the Isanti County Courthouse, you will find several pictures of the judge with his mock trial students.
“At the end of each season, Judge Dehn wrote a personalized letter to each of his team members recognizing their efforts on the team,” Reilly wrote. “I can assure you that each of these students left his team as better citizens and had a greater appreciation for the law and lawyers.”
Even though Judge Dehn is proud of the fact that one of his former mock trial students, Jason Kohlmeyer, was named Young Lawyer of the Year in Minnesota, he realizes most students who go through mock trial don’t necessarily become lawyers.
“Teaching mock trials is a great opportunity for students to gain an appreciation for the court system and judicious prudence,” Judge Dehn said. “It’s an adventure that allows them to see it as a juror, see it play out in court, and understand what it’s like to present a case, try a case and learn about evidence. They can fill both roles as witnesses or lawyers. This experience has allowed me to sit in courtrooms all over the U.S.”
Judge Dehn gave much praise to Cambridge-Isanti High School Mock Trail advisors Mary Ruprecht and Maureen Thompson, and the Isanti County Attorney’s Office for all their work on the program.
“From the CIHS advisors, to the county attorney’s office, I would like to thank everyone who assisted with me over the years,” Judge Dehn said. “Mock trial has been an absolutely great experience. One of the most wonderful things I’ve done over my career is work with the state and national mock trials.”
Judge Dehn has presided over the state mock trial championships, as well as trained the judges who preside over the national championships.
Mock trial has been a great experience for Judge Dehn.
“It has really been a labor of love,” Judge Dehn. “Students who participate in mock trial really come away with an understanding and appreciation of the court system because of mock trial.”