The local whitetail deer appear to be quite comfortable around the community these days. With the cooler temperatures, the their coats are shedding and growing darker and changing color as colder weather moves in. Soon, bucks will not be as comfortable around people when firearms season begins.
Chad LeDuc jokes about spending a lifetime making decisions, but now pondering whether to add cream to his coffee.
He's quick to point out that's a joke: He doesn't take cream in his coffee.
The Honorable Judge Charles LeDuc retired Aug. 31. He said he slept in the next morning, this time without guilt, acknowledging that even on a good day he's not a morning guy.
And before agreeing to talk about his life with the law, he teases he'll first have to decide whether his beloved Rainy Lake is calling him to go fishing. In his non-judge life, he and others, call him Chad LeDuc.
LeDuc's involvement in the law is lengthy and varied. He served 21 years as a district judge in Minnesota Ninth Judicial District, the 16 years before that as a public defender, and includes 20 years in partnership with Shermoen, LeDuc and Jaksa law firm.
LeDuc began as a judge in 1999 with an appointment by Gov. Jesse Ventura, and was elected to full terms in 2000, 2002 and 2008. He was re-elected in 2014. He served as public defender from 1980 to 1996, and practiced law with Shermoen, LeDuc and Jaksa from 1979-1999. He's proud of time he served as public defender representing members of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa.
He said retirement comes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, while fighting cancer for several years, resulting in a compromised immune system.
He's not able to risk his health - reiterated often by his family, he said - to attend court in person during the pandemic, and he feels conducting court via video teleconference for a longer period is not fair to anyone involved.
He said now is the right time.
LeDuc said he does not think of himself as at death's door - "to the consternation of some people," he said laughing. He recently had surgery on a lung, expecting to wake with part of a lung removed due to cancer, and strangely relieved when told he had all his lung that would be instead treated for blastomycosis, a infection of the lung caused by inhaling fungus spores.
Sitting outside at Voyageurs National Park, facing Rainy Lake, he talked about the job and his past jobs, which when listening to him talk brought more high points than lows.
"I haven't thought about a lot of this stuff in years," he said, his voice growing tight with emotion. "It's been a long ride, and real good one. Tears, laughter, greatest job a guy could ever imagine."
LeDuc said he'd like to someday write his memories, which would allow him to embellish - just a bit - the many stories he has to tell, which he does with great detail, color and passion - and at length. (Editor's note: Which makes difficult condensing this story for a newspaper.)
LeDuc calls himself a crier and a hugger, and said he's been criticized a bit for the latter, but he's not apologetic. It is who he is, he said.
He's been reluctant to consider retiring, he said, noting he's the last of some of his friends.
"The biggest struggle I had is I did not and do not want to give up drug court," referring to Borderland Substance Abuse Court, and turning away as tears came.
"I love those people," he said, of the past and present participants, and the drug court teams.
People have failed in drug court, but have found their way back at some point, which he said confirms its success. Even when some have gone to prison, they have thanked him, one of whom sent him a note recently, he said.
He's got a wall full of those kind of notes posted in his office.
And he shared a recent video made by his drug court staff and participants, that would easily jerk tears from the most stoic. It recognizes the now-former judge's role in changing people's lives.
Probably more than most people, LeDuc will miss the job, the team of people in Court Administration and his office staff, and many other aspects of being judge.
And while he's looking forward to retirement, and adding to the already multitude of past and ongoing hobbies, it's hard to leave his involvement with drug court, which he feels is a way to make a lasting difference in people's lives.
The often lengthy process for participants to succeed, often involves laughter, tears, applause and an occasional hug - from the judge.
"Drug court is the greatest thing that's ever been developed," he said, about the theory of treating people with drug addiction differently than criminals. "It works because of accountability, and everyone that is involved in it."
Nearly all of the participants of drug court are "Good solid people that want to get better," he said. "You treat people with the respect they deserve."
He established the local court in 2005 and has continued to develop it.
"I have made a lot of mistakes, but like to think I have done something good with that," he said.
He got it going after witnessing some of the drug courts in the region and state. "I got red hot about it," he said, noting "the judiciary" was not all that red hot about it at that time. He recalls the first team mentioning many names, but worrying he might forget someone important. The local court eventually branched off into Lake of the Woods.
How he got here
Meanwhile, he said he's learned a lot over the years, and credits his time working with Jerry and Steve Shermoen for teaching him about Rainy Lake, fishing, the law, and life in general.
LeDuc ended up in International Falls at first reluctantly, and now can think of no better place to live than Rainy Lake.
From North Dakota, living in the Icebox of the Nation wasn't on his radar, but an early acquaintance with Steve Shermoen in college, turned into a friendship and business opportunity in Shermoen's hometown.
Clinching the deal for Borderland was when LeDuc met his wife, Brenda, who is from Ranier, and then also fell in love with Rainy Lake. His cabin in Canada, where he has not been in one year, is where he wants "to be dusted" when he is done with this life, he said.
He's proud to point out he's been married to Brenda for 38 years, admitting "a somewhat colored past" and wondering "why she is still doing this to herself."
He said he's blessed by having his children, whom want and are able to live and work in the community.
And he feels blessed with great friends, one of which, a fellow judge, called to wish him well, and encouraged this reporter to call later for "the real story."
LeDuc said it's been difficult to embrace the idea of not being a judge, but was reminded recently by a judge friend that 'you're a former judge, you're a human, you are not held to the same standard.'
He recalls those who went before him and from whom he learned a lot, like judges Pete Hemstad, Bill Kalar, Gordon McRay, who each brought their own unique, and successful style as judge. He recalled being told in his early years as an attorney not to be cocky or stupid in court by McRay, an idea he said he's since taken to court in all of his roles.
He's seen a lot of changes, and said he's watched as local courts become administrated by the state via regional offices. While that has brought with it benefits, he said it also has brought drawbacks.
He admits he's reluctant to change; some have called him a Luddite. He balks somewhat jokingly at the state telling him he needs to sign in black ink, because it copies better; he had to learn to sign documents with a digital signature; he had to approve the hours of his staff, whom he knows work more hours than they are paid.
He's not in favor of time crunching.
"I agonize over a lot of stuff," he said. "So I am slow on the trigger a lot of times. I'd much sooner do something I believe is correct and right in my moral judges, than jerk it out and boom, make a decision."
"It's about what they deserve, what people should have." he said.
Despite reiterating being a judge "is the greatest job without a doubt," he admits there's a lot of stress.
The law, he said is not based on what's right and what's wrong, instead on what is correct or incorrect. Right and wrong is based on people's view of morality, which varies greatly among people, he said.
LeDuc said judges must make subjective decisions based on what's correct or incorrect.
"I agonize about being able to live with myself, but that's a moral deal," he said.
The great thing about the law is that it's built to correct itself, with other levels of courts offering appeals and being able to correct a mistake.
"Justice will ultimately be done, at least in the big picture," he said. "The bottom line, the reversals I have had, I don't worry, I don't resent, and you learn something about it. The hardest is when you are confronted with a case with no precedence. And you completely rely on your morality. There's nothing to look at except internally."
He said a recent reversal in one of his sentences, led to a comment that LeDuc treated him unfairly. "OK, probably did based upon what's correct, but it sure didn't feel wrong to me... I didn't think it was incorrect," he said adding he handed out the sentence in an effort to get the best care for the person being sentenced.
Working in a small town, he said he's sentenced people he knows, like in the above case, and he checks within himself to ensure he can handle it objectively and fairly. Sentencing people doesn't mean LeDuc does not like them, it simply is what is correct under the law, he said.
Being a judge brings with it issues like that, and a recent group of people involved in the court system has created a forum to talk about and support one another, he said.
In a small town, he said stepping away, or recusing himself, from a case means another judge needs to step in, which can delay the process.
LeDuc said he wanted to make a lasting difference for people, and is proud of the time he spent as a public defender.
He points to once case in which he defended a man accused of murder, who went on to help others in his community struggling with alcohol issues, and came to LeDuc's swearing in as judge, he said.
He's proud of being the first licensed attorney in Red Lake Band of the Chippewa's reservation, and had to learn about Native American law, which is very unique, he said. He learned a little Ojibwe and made great friends, he added.
The civil case
His most favorite civil case was with his friend Vic Davis, a legal case involving Voyageurs National Park and private property rights that lasted for years.
"All the things we did, all the fun we had, all the agonizing over things," he said. "I cried. I have cried since I've been a judge - had to fight it back, but I am a crier, cried in Vic's case. The emotion, the government, the land, the people, folks were standing against this edifice, the government."
"Vic Davis' case was a big deal to me," he said, adding he became involved when Davis brought a case to his firm involving Black Bay estates.
"How does he, when the park is three-quarters done, buy the entire view of the Rainy Lake Visitor Center? But he did, then he subdivided it and everything took off from there."
The Big Louie statue was placed on the property, and rocks were painted in protest of the government's taking of the land for the park.
He and Davis went to trial against very confident Washington DC attorneys, representing the federal government and park.
"We were ready, but scared," he said. "The night before the big day, those guys call us up to their room to have a couple Scotches."
They made an offer, Davis rejected it and they prepared for trial by gathering evidence.
Davis got approval from Koochiching County for a planned development on the property. In the meantime, the Rainy Lake Park Visitor Center was constructed, and tourists believed the statue and painted rocks were a part of the park, he said.
Davis prevailed following an appeal, and the federal government finally settled with him, and the property became part of the park.
Because of the case, LeDuc said he has been viewed as a guy willing to go against the national park, but he said he's a park lover, he worked at Glacier National Park as a boat captain in his younger years, and has loved the woodsy feel of VNP.
"It was the way they were going about (taking private property) that was frustrating, and it ended up it was a template they used to obtain property," he said of why the case was important.
The case, and his part in it, is local history now, but still comes up in cases about federal land taking from time to time.
"It's all past us," he says.
In fact, and maybe a little ironically, LeDuc plans soon to volunteer at Voyageurs; his wife Brenda now volunteers there, and his daughter works there.
LITTLEFORK – Unexpected money received by the city of Littlefork will be used to help pay bills at the cash-strapped Littlefork Municipal Liquor Store.
The Littlefork City Council Thursday met in special session and held a public hearing Sept. 10, to discuss options for the city-owned business, which is running out of money in its checking and savings account.
Mayor Mike Fort said the liquor store’s bank account is being depleted and it’s becoming a growing concern for the council.
“The reason why that is a concern for the city council is we said we would never use taxpayer dollars to operate or fund the liquor store,” he said.
As a solution, property tax money received by the city from the Great Northern Transmission Line will help pay the bills, for now. The council, with verbal support of the about 25 community members in attendance, unanimously agreed to transfer $15,000 received from the Great Northern Transmission Line into the liquor store fund.
The money comes from action taken in August by the Koochiching County Board, which agreed to allocate 25 percent of the $931,673 in taxes generated by the Great Northern Transmission Line to the county’s cities. About 89 miles of the 225-mile, 500 kv power line runs power from Manitoba Hydro through a portion of Koochiching County, to a substation near Grand Rapids. Littlefork city officials said they expected the annual payment to be about $17,000, but ended up with just over $32,000. The money is not taxpayer dollars.
“They’ve got a formula they use to figure it out,” city Administrator Sonja Pelland said of how much money each city gets is determined. She added the $17,000 originally anticipated was put into budget to avoid raising taxes.
“But here’s $15,000 extra dollars that we hadn’t budgeted to spend anywhere that just kind of showed up this year kind of just in time and we have a use for it,” Pelland said.
Renovations and COVID
It’s been a tough few years for the Littlefork Liquor Store.
The business needed to be closed for three months in 2019 as it underwent necessary renovations and repairs, which took longer than expected. Then, COVID-19 hit, causing it to close in March, and is still operating with limited hours six months later.
“With COVID, remodeling and the unemployment, we don’t have much left,” Fort said.
Information provided Sept. 10 showed the liquor store’s current cash on hand totals $8,255, while bills on hand add up to $13,512.
“With low sales and no special events...with on-sale closed for COVID-19... it has just not been good,” Pelland said.
Fort said choices facing the liquor store are to shut down or find other sources of revenue.
“If you shutdown, you probably don’t reopen and you lose another business in town, which I don’t want to see and I’m sure most people here don’t want to see,” he said.
The audience agreed.
When the mayor asked if those in attendance supported keeping the Littlefork Liquor Store open, only support was voiced.
Mel Millerbernd asked if the council expected revenue to be made up during the upcoming hunting season.
Fort nodded, and said October and November are typically successful months.
“(They are) probably the best months that we have,” he said, adding the council wanted to hold the public hearing prior to those months to get a feel of what the public thought.
The community has a history of supporting continued operation of the Littlefork Liquor Store.
In 2016, voters agreed to keep the store operating after a petition circulated regarding its closure. The question: “Shall the city of Littlefork discontinue operating a municipal liquor store after May 31, 2017?” was placed on the ballot by a petition containing 20 signatures from the 351 eligible voters in the city. The result: 253 “no,” and 81 “yes” votes.
In November 2017, a little more than one year after the vote, a public hearing required by the state on the future operation drew no comments from residents. Minnesota law requires a city whose liquor store has experienced losses in any two years during the past three-year period to hold a public hearing on the question of whether the city should continue to operate a municipal liquor store, according to the Minnesota Auditor’s Office. A hearing was held in 2015 and in March 2016. A two-year renovation and remodel, launched in 2018, took longer than expected, leading to an operating loss in 2019.
Then, when COVID-19 knocked on Minnesota’s doors, the liquor store closed March 17 and only offered off-sale in April and May.
Pelland said a common misconception about the liquor store in relation to the pandemic is that because it is a government-owned business, it is not eligible for the payment protection program and other various emergency funding sources.
“We can’t apply,” she said.
Fort said the city received $46,000 in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act money to use for COVID-19 related expenses, which could include unemployment.
“There’s such a narrow window on what you can use it for,” he said, adding it needs to be allocated by Nov. 30, or it goes back to Koochiching County.
In addition to the Great Northern Transmission Line money, the council said there’s about $50,000 in economic development money, some of which is already earmarked in the 2021 budget to go toward the community building project.
An audience member asked if everything works out, what the council’s final plan for the business is.
Fort said he’s hopeful revenues are good enough at the liquor store to build up the fund balance.
“If we can break even, we’ll keep it open,” he said. “But we don’t want to continually have to take money from other areas.”