Flynnisms: The world according to retiring Judge Jeffrey Flynn
WORTHINGTON -- Anyone who has spent time in a courtroom with Judge Jeffrey Flynn knows there are no atheists in a foxhole. And while defendants who have stood in front of Flynn waiting for him to pass judgment might not find it amusing, others have bit back a chuckle more than once when it comes to the quirky, crafty and clever remarks heard from the bench in Nobles County.
Over the past 27 years or so, the tidbits of advice, homey sayings and barked-out opinions have come to be known as Flynnisms, but Flynn isn't exactly sure how or why it started.
"I don't know," he admitted with a bemused grin when asked why he started offering his own brand of advice and comment in the courtroom. "I guess I figured you have to be yourself and talk in terms people will understand."
Flynn grew up in Worthington and graduated in 1967 from Worthington High School. He attended St. John's University, graduating in 1971, then entered the William Mitchell College of Law, earning a law degree in 1975.
"Well, it was by default," Flynn stated. "It always interested me, and I had no other career ambitions."
Growing up next door to well-known attorney John Von Holtum, Flynn admired the man greatly and considered him an outstanding attorney, he said, which probably influenced his decision. After passing the bar, Flynn spent several years working in the Twin Cities for the law firm Grose & Von Holtum.
In 1978, he headed back to Worthington and opened his own law office, handling cases that ranged from civil litigation to workers' comp claims, from family law to real estate. In 1980, attorney Larry Lucht joined the firm.
Flynn said he never particularly aspired to be a judge.
"It was just happenstance," he claimed. "A coincidence things occurred that way."
In 1982, a constitutional amendment was passed, creating the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Flynn admitted he was surprised when Nobles County Judge Gary Crippen was appointed to the appellate court.
"It never occurred to me he'd be interested," Flynn said.
This left the county judgeship open, and Flynn decided to apply. There was no judicial selection committee, and the whole process was much less formal than it is these days, he said. He was sworn in as Judge Flynn in June of 1984 in front of family and friends.
At the time, felony cases and civil suits were handled by a district court judge, but in 1985, the local district court judge needed time off for a medical issue. He asked Flynn to handle his cases.
"So I started doing district court work in 1985," Flynn said. "By the time they phased county judgeships out in 1987, I was already doing the district case work."
Then came the Harvestore silo litigation. A flurry of court cases across the country against Harvestore resulted in an abundance of pending motions. Almost by default, Flynn said, he became the "so-called expert" in the litigation.
From the bench
Just four months short of 28 years after being sworn in, and after wearing out several robes, he claimed, Judge Flynn will put down his gavel. Well, mostly. Slated to retire at the end of January, Flynn will work part-time as a senior judge, and help out with complex civil litigation -- in fact, he's already got trial dates set on his calendar in April.
He has done extensive work with juveniles over the years, once even hearing a DWI case at Memorial Auditorium so students from the local high schools could attend and hopefully better understand the ramifications of drinking and driving.
"Juveniles are a big part of the work here -- delinquency, truancy, child protection cases," Flynn said. "In some of the termination of parental rights cases, to see how those kids have been treated just breaks your heart. Those kids don't stand a chance."
Sadly, Flynn said he is now seeing some third-generation offenders. He has witnessed a complete abdication of personal and parental responsibility, he said, for which he blames the Legislature.
"Parents expect the school, the courts, the police and the welfare office to raise their children," he explained. "The schools are scared they'll get in trouble if they discipline a kid, and we're almost to the point where parents don't know how."
Another thing he finds frustrating is the rise in harassment petitions -- how eager people are to charge each other with harassment instead of working out problems or using common sense.
"To call this behavior stupid is an insult to stupid," he told a suspect last year.
Some of the Flynnisms that pop out during juvenile cases are meant to convince young people that it is in their best interest to avoid a courtroom for the rest of their life.
"Some of the expressions I use to no avail," Flynn admitted. "Some are so old they don't have a clue what I'm talking about."
For example, he's often told people who are back in his courtroom for a second (or more) offense, that if he sees them again it will be "1 at the house and 2 at the church." Most have no idea what he means.
"It's because of how they used to hold funerals," he explained. "They would meet at 1 p.m. at the house, then at 2 p.m. at the church."
More than one attorney has had to choke back a laugh when Flynn goes into full "scare them straight" mode, and many were eager to share favorite Flynnisms.
A former Nobles County Assistant Attorney said he always had to hide a snicker when Flynn would bark, "If you believe that, you'll never own your own home."
More than one repeat offender has been told, "With your criminal history score, if you tear the tag off a mattress after this, you're going to spend your life in prison."
Other favorites include, "If you commit another probation violation, you had better make arrangements to have the plants watered and the cat fed"; or "Next time you show up in my court, you had better bring a toothbrush." More than one person has been warned, "They are warming up the bus to take you to prison."
A case that still lives on in the memories of everyone in court that day goes something like this: A defendant was asked his name during an arraignment, and stated he had one name for work, one for his driver's license, one his mother had given him and one his friends called him. Without missing a beat, Flynn informed the man he had better figure out what his "going-to-jail name" was going to be.
People accused of speeding or other dangerous activities were generally informed they could be labeled as "organ donors," and others were told their pre-sentence investigations read like "poorly written novels."
The frustration of repeat offenders full of excuses and sorrow often elicited sarcasm that seemed to fly right over the subject's heads, especially when it came to those with no jobs or ambition.
"Well, with no driver's license and a felony record, it's going to be hard to find a job," Flynn said to one man. "You'd be surprised how narrow-minded some people are."
"Judging by your work history, you've never had a job," Flynn commented to another. "Maybe you can find one in prison."
With an influx of people in his courtroom from a variety of backgrounds, more than one of Flynn's comments has run up against a language barrier, even for interpreters. A defense attorney shared a story in which Flynn's remark "Beam me up, Scotty" got interpreted as "Beat me up, Scotty," causing a bit of confusion.
When the court has encountered defendants with false identification who are claiming Puerto Rican residency, Flynn has been known to ask the suspects how many stars are on the Puerto Rican flag, flummoxing more than one individual.
Flynn's ability to detect sob stories surfaces often in the courtroom. According to one attorney, a minority juvenile defendant told Flynn he was being picked on and targeted by the police and school because of his race. Flynn asked the boy if he knew who Jackie Robinson was, then assigned him to read about Robinson and write a report to the court about breaking the baseball color barrier.
Never at a loss for appropriate words, Flynn informed a man lamenting his latest jail sentence, "In 25 years, I don't think I've ever heard anyone say, 'Boy, am I glad I'm in jail.'"
End of an era
Nobles County Attorney Gordon Moore described Flynn as "quick study of people and their character."
"Not many defendants or witnesses got the better of him. He did not suffer fools gladly, either as attorneys, parties or defendants," Moore stated. "We will miss him greatly, and the court won't be the same without him -- he is truly a legend in this area."
After his retirement, Flynn said he hopes to spend more time playing golf, more time fishing, and more time with his four children and two grandsons. He and his wife plan to head south for a time this winter.
He claimed -- with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye -- he doesn't expect to miss his time in the courtroom. Those who work with him daily, who listen to his advice, judgments and ideas, and who will miss his Flynnisms, have just one response.
"That dog won't hunt."