This month I began my third term as Pine County Attorney. The last eight years have been an adventure and the experience of a lifetime. I am thankful for this job, and I’m very proud of our accomplishments and the team of ten hardworking professionals that are the driving force of the office.
Nearly nine years ago, I decided to run for Pine County Attorney and began campaigning. I often tell people that if they want a quick education in government and politics, either run for office or join a campaign. Among the advertising, signs, debates, parades, festivals, community gatherings, meetings with local leadership, letters to the editor, social media, websites, campaign brochures, and bulk orders of parade candy, I feel that a necessary and time-tested component is knocking on doors and speaking with voters. It’s not the most glamorous part of campaigning and is often fraught with peril.
During my campaign, a gentleman unleashed his large dogs to chase me off his property. One elderly lady invited me into her home, and after I told her I was running for office, she screamed “no politicians!” and shooed me out by waiving both her arms at me (although I take issue with the “politician” label). One person confronted me with a rifle.
Most of my experiences were positive though. I met many kind people, some inviting me to sit at their kitchen table and talk about issues facing their community. I learned a lot from these conversations and have tried to continue those conversations beyond the campaign years through hosting meetings over coffee; speaking to local groups, schools, and churches; speaking at local DWI and domestic violence education classes; forging partnerships with local nonprofits, governments, and businesses; writing newspaper columns; posting social media updates; and co-hosting a monthly radio show.
I always give kudos to those elected officials who reach out and learn about their constituents, especially our state legislators, county commissioners, county sheriff and city officials. After all, we are a representative government.
I think it’s important for citizens to understand the roles of their representatives. A consistent question that I receive over the years since my first campaign is: What does a county attorney do?
A county attorney is a member of the executive branch of government; basically, we enforce laws. We do not perform the functions of the legislative branch or the judicial branch, though many incorrectly attribute the functions of these branches to county attorneys, such as the contents of laws or sentencing outcomes.
During the last few years, I’ve observed certain groups and sometimes the media suggest that county attorneys possess a lot of power with respect to their job. The reality is that much of what we do is greatly limited by the other branches of government. These limitations are found in state law, case law, procedural law, evidentiary law, the constitution, jurisdictional limitations, and professional standards.
A county attorney’s most visible role is prosecuting crimes. We have jurisdiction over adult and juvenile misdemeanors, gross misdemeanors, and felonies within Pine County. It’s our responsibility to seek justice in these cases. “Justice” does not necessarily mean obtaining a conviction – it means prosecuting the right person for the right crime and obtaining the right result. In some cases, that outcome involves incarceration. In many other cases, that outcome may involve probation with an emphasis on treatment for mental health or chemical dependency. There are a wide range of possibilities depending on the situation and legal requirements.
A county attorney also does much more than criminal prosecution: we are legal advisors to the county board and county departments; we draft and review contracts for the county; represent the county in civil suits in federal, state and tax court; enforce and obtain child support obligations; protect children and vulnerable adults through civil court actions; draft ordinances; pursue actions against estates on benefits claims; work with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies; provide data privacy guidance; impanel grand juries; and work with our cities and townships.
As county attorney, I’ve also testified in Congress to advocate for changes to the law to further protect our citizens, and I’ve served on many advisory committees. The only thing that it seems we do not provide to citizens is legal advice on personal situations (sorry, you must hire an attorney for that).
The stakes are often high in this job, not in terms of money, but in terms of people. Most of our files represent someone’s life – a decision in a file could change a person’s path forever.
I feel it’s a calling to be in this profession. Unfortunately, it’s getting tougher to find a new generation of lawyers with that passion and interest in county attorney work, whether it’s because of a robust economy for lawyers or county attorneys have felt the effects of the unfair onslaught against law enforcement the last few years. That concerns me, as we are often the only voice for enforcing the law and speaking up for victims in the court system.
But, especially as we celebrate MLK Day, I’m reminded of one of Dr. King’s quotes that gives me hope: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” County attorneys help bend that arc.
Reese Frederickson is the Pine County attorney.