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Judge, court reporter hit retirement together

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Judge Robert Birnbaum of the 3rd Judicial District is retiring his seat on the bench but has accepted a senior judge appointment.
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For a couple of retired guys, Robert Birnbaum and David Lutzke seem to be working a lot.

Birnbaum, who served as an Olmsted County District Court judge for 17 years, retired June 19. Lutzke, a court reporter for 35 years, the last 17 of them for Birnbaum, retired the same day.

Because he retired as a judge of good standing, though, Birnbaum will serve as a senior judge — think substitute teacher — on the bench.

For at least the next two years, he'll continue to hear cases when he's called upon to fill in. Senior judges are certified on a biennial basis, as long as they meet professional standards.

"I didn't retire because I couldn't do the work," Birnbaum said. "I've told people, the first thing I'm going to do is go back to work. I'll show up in my robe and say, 'where do you want me?' Well, it's more involved than that, but still..."

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Lutzke has a little different story — he simply isn't finished transcribing all of his cases. In fact, he said, that work may extend for months, depending on possible appeals of cases he's worked on in the past.

"I'm still adjusting," Lutzke said from his Plainview home, where he continues to listen to those court proceedings while creating a permanent record.

"I haven't gotten into the retirement mode yet," he laughed. "I imagine the day will come when I'll wake up and not have anything to do that day."

The judge

Birnbaum was born in the Bronx, moved with his family to New Jersey as a boy, attended college in Maine, then spent three years in the Army.

He earned a degree in education and found a job teaching children with learning disabilities.

"I've always been what they call a trailing spouse," Birnbaum said; his wife, Linda, still works for IBM.

He graduated from William Mitchell College of Law in 1982, then spent most of the next 15 years in insurance defense litigation.

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He and his wife, Linda, moved to Rochester in 1993; he was appointed as a judge of the Third District by Gov. Arne Carlson in January 1998.

After 17 years, Birnbaum acknowledges things have changed.

"There are a lot of standards that have relaxed since I was younger," he said, "but sometimes that's for the better."

Birnbaum is grateful for the opportunities to provide both justice and guidance.

"I think rather than any specific case, it's the idea that people thought I was fair," he said. "I listened, but even if I didn't rule in their favor, I had some effect on people's lives."

Still, Birnbaum said, "the courts can only do so much. We provide services for people to obtain an education, or services that will support them as they do better. And it's so much better, in every way, to provided the services they need.

"I'm cautious about being the guy up there, just lecturing," he said. "I have to remind you that we provide the services for you, but in the end, you have to do the work. It's up to you."

Birnbaum has also seen his share of cases that prompted lives to change.

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"I have encountered very few people who are just bad people," he said. "Most people have come from bad circumstances; that's the way they think family relates to each other. Regardless of that, they're responsible for their behavior."

His judicial duties over the years have included twice serving as assistant chief judge of the Third District, but he is most proud of his role as lead judge in Olmsted County for the Minnesota Supreme Court's Children's Justice Initiative.

"The fact that we made a difference in kids' lives..." Birnbaum paused, clearly emotional about his experiences in child protection. "I'm really proud of that."

Olmsted County has the state's highest rate of completed adoptions within 24 months of the child becoming available. The statewide average is 54 percent; Olmsted County's is greater than 90 percent.

"It was never about me being important. It was about helping people," Birnbaum said. "It wasn't my seat; it was the seat of the court, and I got to occupy it for a while. I hope I left it better than I found it."

The reporter

There's a little bit of lawyer in Lutzke, he readily admits, and probably more than a little bit of legal knowledge. That's what 35 years of listening to court proceedings will get you.

His plan to attend junior college after graduating from John Marshall High School was sidetracked after a field trip to the courthouse. Instead, he planned to attend court reporting school, make a little money, then attend a four-year college.

That plan, too, slid away when he dropped out of court reporting school to accept a reporting position with Judge O. Russell Olson.

It didn't take long, Lutzke said, "and I thought, I'm in way over my head. I was so stressed out."

A bout of appendicitis just two weeks after he started, he laughed, "felt like a vacation."

Lutzke worked for Olson for a year, then headed to the University of Minnesota as a political science major. He was working for former Gov. Al Quie when Olson came calling again.

"I hadn't touched my steno machine much," Lutzke said, "but I thought I could go back for a year, earn some more money for college."

He started working for Olson again — and stayed.

Lutzke considers court reporting in real time — that is, on a steno machine, with no recording on which to depend — "a skill comparable to a concert pianist."

It's the way he worked for nearly 26 years, before electronic recording devices were installed. Court reporters now use earphones to listen to a time-delayed recording of the courtroom proceedings, and enter them into a computer file.

The steno machines had brief forms of common courtroom words or phrases that appeared with a single keystroke; programs used in electronic reporting build up a vocabulary recognized by the computer.

"If I were advising new judges, I'd tell them to hire a real-time steno court reporter," Lutzke said. "Not that electronic reporting can't be accurate, but if the judge wants a transcript (of the proceedings), the reporter has to go back and listen to the recording" to create a written transcript.

A steno recorder, he said, "just proofreads."

Though perhaps the least-noticed person during court proceedings, the reporter plays a role every bit as important as judge or jury.

"There needs to be one person in that courtroom making sure that what happens is being recorded appropriately and accurately," Lutzke said.

So what happens if a real-time reporter doesn't hear or understand something that's said?

"Well, you have to speak up," Lutzke said. "You don't want to interrupt the proceedings, but you have to (report) everything."

His concern, he said, is a judicial system that's becoming overwhelmed.

"We need to give cases the attention they deserve," Lutzke said. "We need more judges, we need more staff. You're not getting your day in court anymore; you're getting your 15 minutes in court."

Despite those challenges, Lutzke calls Birnbaum — his boss for the past 17 years — "the most judicial of the judges I worked for.

"He allows everyone to be heard," Lutzke said. "He'll split the baby, as they say. He wants everyone to get something out of it, but no one knew what he was going to do until he did it. He's such a fair guy, so nice to work for, but he had his expectations of me, too."

Birnbaum calls theirs "an important relationship. He keeps the record, and I counted on him to be accurate. I came to rely on his experience."

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A retirement party is held at the Government Center Friday for Judge Robert Birnbaum, center, and court reporter Dave Lutzke, pictured second from left and facing the camera. Both are retiring June 19. Also pictured, from left, are Ray Hansen, Shelley McBride and Jill Frieders.

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