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Board Member, Judge Michael Mayer nets national recognition for child advocacy

Judge Michael Mayer won an award for his work advocating for children in juvenile court. Dakota County Judge Michael Mayer’s path toward a career specializing in juvenile justice began with his own difficult upbringing on Chicago’s South Side.

After living with his mother, a single parent suffering from mental health issues, Mayer spent much of his childhood at military boarding schools in what he described as a crowded city struggling with racial tension. He said his experience later inspired him to want to make things better for other children. “Very few kids are born bad,” Mayer said. “Usually something happens to them. I knew that early on.”

Last month, Mayer received the A.L. Carlisle Child Advocacy Award from the Coalition of Juvenile Justice (CJJ) at its annual conference in Washington, D.C. The CJJ is a national coalition of state advisory groups and others who work to prevent juveniles from becoming entangled in the court system.

JudgeMayer2Mayer calls his own strategy in handling juvenile cases an “asset-based approach,” in that he seeks to highlight something positive about each child. He also peppers them with questions: What are you reacting to? What’s going on in your life that’s making you do this? Nobody asks them those questions,” he said.

Carrie Wasley, youth program specialist for the state’s department of public safety, called Mayer’s approachability a critical tool when dealing with juveniles. “He talks to them in their language and looks them in the eye when speaking to them,” she said.

Seeking alternatives
Well before he became a judge, Mayer was already entrenched in juvenile justice issues. In the roughly 20 years he practiced as an attorney at law firms in Eagan and South St. Paul, Mayer also served as a juvenile public defender. By 1995, he caught the attention of then-Gov. Arne Carlson, who appointed Mayer to the state’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee. Mayer, still a member of the committee, was able to help convince legislators to pass a policy in 2009 that seeks to limit the justice system’s contact with and disproportionate effect on minority youth.

His advisory group also organized a forum on youth sentencing practices last year, advocating for a change to state law that would prohibit life without parole for juveniles. Mayer said the group is still working with legislators and county attorneys on a compromise, but said he thinks “almost everybody agrees that it should pass.”

Mayer applauds efforts in Dakota County to provide alternative means of handling cases of certain juvenile offenders, like Peer Court or targeted accountability programs. He also volunteers time to preside over family drug court hearings and is on the board of Tree House, an organization that helps at-risk youth and juveniles battling mental health and chemical dependency issues.

“Judge Mayer has been a strong advocate for juvenile justice throughout his career, not just here in Dakota County but across our state,” Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said.

In 2013, Mayer was appointed to the CAP Board for Dakota, Carver and Scott counties. Mayer is an active member of Easter Lutheran Church, where he serves as a mentor for youth in the confirmation process. He gives presentations to his congregation and community about the consequences of juvenile records and young people who are involved in the juvenile justice system.

Mayer was appointed as a First Judicial District Judge in 2004 by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. He was a partner with the Eagan law firm of Grannis and Hauge, practicing there from 1989 to 2004. Previously, he was an associate attorney with the South St. Paul law firm of Grannis, Grannis, Farrell and Knutson from 1986 to 1989, and an associate attorney with the Eagan law firm of Hauge, Eide and Keller from 1985 to 1986. Mayer earned his J.D. from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul in 1985, and his B.A. degree with honors from St. Mary’s University in Winona in 1981.

The article was written by , original published in the Star Tribune

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