U.S. Bankruptcy Judge to come off benchPublished 11:17am Wednesday, June 19, 2013
U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Dennis O’Brien will hang up his robe in Fergus Falls for the final time today. He’s made monthly trips to the city from St. Paul since 1985 and is retiring from his spot on the bench at the end of the month.
“It has been an extremely fulfilling experience,” O’Brien said.
Tuesday, O’Brien recalled the history and how times have changed during his nearly 30 years presiding in federal bankruptcy court in Fergus Falls, the sixth division in the eighth circuit of federal court. Before 1985, the two courtrooms at the federal courthouse in Fergus Falls went unoccupied for 25 to 30 years.
When O’Brien started in bankruptcy court in 1984, Fergus Falls wasn’t a venue.
“Cases were handled by Minnesota bankruptcy judges, but the clerk’s office and the files were maintained in Fargo,” he said.
So, O’Brien assumed responsibility for cases and traveled to Fargo, where he’d borrow a courtroom to conduct cases. But then the Chief District Judge of Minnesota and Chief District Judge of North Dakota “got into some kind of tiff,” O’Brien said. The North Dakota judge said to “’pick up your files and get out of here,’” O’Brien said.
Enter the centrally-located courthouse in the division, with a courtroom that was restored to look like it did in its hay days.
“Fergus Falls was far and away the best pick,” O’Brien said. “We chose Fergus Falls because of its location and because there was already a facility in place.”
With no clerk’s office yet for the monthly trip to Fergus Falls, O’Brien said he loaded files into the trunk of his car and hauled them up from St. Paul. The clerk’s office opened later in 1985 but closed just a couple of years ago.
O’Brien went from loading files manually to a digital age where filing is done and can be found online.
“It’s no longer necessary to have an isolated clerk’s facility,” he said. “We do everything that we always did, except physically maintain the files. We still come up here once a month.”
He also recalls when times were a little more tense and one of the busiest in bankruptcy court, during the early days of the farming crisis in the 1980s.
“There were a lot of farms that went down,” O’Brien said. “It was a very emotional time.”
It was a time with a lot of chapter 11 bankruptcy cases, when O’Brien was in court some days from 9:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. It was just farm cases, one after another, he said.
Another thing they didn’t have in the courtroom years ago was security, but it just wasn’t a concern then, he said.
“If you had problems with somebody in the courtroom, you’d just have to talk it through,” O’Brien said.
He was 36 years old in 1984 when he was appointed to his first 14-year term on the bench. Now 65, he’s in the middle of a 14-year term that would run out in 2018.
“I just feel it’s time to move on to something else,” O’Brien said.
He will likely spend time with his wife of 42 years (as of June 26), and his two children and two grandchildren. But he won’t get out of law entirely. He plans to work as counsel on a limited basis for a friend’s law firm in Minneapolis.
“I’m not going to have a big hole in my life,” he said.
Fergus Falls Mayor Hal Leland declared today as The Honorable Dennis D. O’Brien Appreciation Day, via a proclamation read at Monday’s city council meeting.
O’Brien was honored with a lunch today at River Inn put on by the State Bar Association.