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Borgen stepping down as judge - 'I want to get back in the game'

MOORHEAD - After nearly eight years on the bench, 7th Judicial District Judge Lisa Borgen is trading in her black robe and gavel for a briefcase. The former Clay County attorney announced Monday she will step down Nov. 1 and return to private pra...

Lisa Borgen
Lisa Borgen, Minnesota's 7th Judicial District judge. Forum file photo

MOORHEAD - After nearly eight years on the bench, 7th Judicial District Judge Lisa Borgen is trading in her black robe and gavel for a briefcase.

The former Clay County attorney announced Monday she will step down Nov. 1 and return to private practice, joining the Moorhead office of Vogel Law Firm.

"I want to get back in the game," said Borgen, who was county attorney for seven years before being appointed to the bench in January 2006 by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty. "I liked being the referee, but I think playing the game is kind of fun, and I just wasn't done doing it."

Giving up a judgeship to go back to lawyering is a somewhat unusual move, and one that several longtime local attorneys said they couldn't recall happening in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

"I don't know of anybody in the Fargo market that's ever done this," said Bruce Quick, a defense attorney with Vogel Law Firm and a former Cass County prosecutor.


"It usually runs the other way," said Garylle Stewart, an assistant Fargo city attorney who has practiced law in the city since 1968.

Borgen, who announced her decision in an email to area media outlets, said she also couldn't recall an area judge making a similar move, but she noted it's not unheard of.

In June 2010, Eric Magnuson stepped down as chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court to return to private practice, citing personal reasons. And numerous news outlets have reported on an increasing number of federal judges leaving the bench for better pay and other factors.

Borgen said she's excited to begin building a business at Vogel's Moorhead office, and she hasn't limited herself to practicing any particular area of law.

"I'd be happy to do criminal law. I just have to wait and see what kind of clientele will come to me. It's kind of not really up to me," she said, laughing.

Tami Norgard, one of the firm's managing partners, issued a statement calling Borgen an accomplished judge who is well-known as a "respected, tireless attorney with a passion for helping people.

"Lisa is a commanding presence in a courtroom and will be a zealous advocate for firm clients," Norgard said.

Quick, a Vogel partner who also teaches trial skills and criminal procedure at the University of North Dakota School of Law, said he believes Borgen's experience as a judge will give her "a tremendous advantage" as an attorney.


Stewart said Borgen has "done a hell of a job with everything she does," and he expects that will continue in her private practice.

Borgen, 51, is a 1993 graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead and 1996 graduate of the UND law school. She worked as a public defender and in solo practice before being elected Clay County attorney in November 1998, defeating incumbent Todd Webb by a vote of 61 percent to 39 percent.

Pawlenty appointed Borgen in January 2006 to fill the judgeship left vacant by the retirement of Judge William E. Walker. Among the other finalists was Ken Kohler, Borgen's chief assistant attorney in the office's criminal division. Kohler left the office about a year later to join Vogel Law Firm.

Borgen ran unopposed for re-election in 2008. Her current term is set to expire in January 2015, and her annual salary is $129,124.

Borgen said she believes she made the most of her time on the bench, but she was "just looking for a change.

"Not that I didn't like it or that I was bored, just that I like a new challenge, and that's just my personality. I'm kind of a restless soul," she said.

As a judge in the 10-county 7th Judicial District, Borgen presided over cases in Clay County and on Thursdays in Becker County.

Among her accomplishments as judge, Borgen said she's particularly proud of her role in creating the Clay-Becker drug court, the Clay County Domestic Violence Court, a new court being developed to address issues faced by military veterans and improvements to the Children in Need of Protection (CHIPS) Court.


Joe Parise, currently the managing attorney in the Moorhead public defender's office, has throughout the years worked alongside Borgen, battled her in the courtroom and argued cases in front of her. He said he was "a bit" surprised by her announcement Monday, but not at all surprised that Borgen wants to get back into the fray of litigating.

"It's not so much fun calling balls and strikes all the time and not doing anything else with that, you know. And she's been very busy and is to be commended ... breaking some ground and stuff, but I think she misses that part of it," he said.

Parise - who noted he had to be careful with his comments because Borgen is still presiding over a case of his awaiting sentencing - said she is a "very capable" litigator whose work as county attorney wasn't limited to administrative tasks.

"She got in there and tried cases. She tried big cases," he said.

Her office had its setbacks as well as victories. Prosecutors convicted Michael Gianakos of first-degree murder in the death of his baby sitter, AnneMarie Camp, in 2000, only to see the Minnesota State Supreme Court overturn the case on the grounds that Gianakos' wife, Jamie Dennis-Gianakos, should not have been allowed to testify against him, according to Forum archives. Gianakos was ultimately convicted in federal court of kidnapping resulting in death and was sentenced to life in prison.

The Minnesota Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility also investigated Borgen for how she prosecuted Troy Demetrius Mahorn, whose 2004 murder conviction was overturned by the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2006. The high court ruled that Borgen displayed misconduct while cross-examining Mahorn, telling him, "You wouldn't know the truth if it hit you in the face." The lawyers' group ultimately found that discipline wasn't warranted against Borgen.

Minnesota's Commission on Judicial Selection will screen applicants for the vacancy left by Borgen and recommend candidates to Gov. Mark Dayton, who will appoint someone to serve out the remainder of Borgen's term. The appointed judge would have to run for re-election in November 2014 to retain the post.

Readers can reach Forum reporter


Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

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