State board alleges ‘pattern’ of prejudice by Anoka County judge

State board alleges ‘pattern’ of prejudice by Anoka County judge

State board alleges 'pattern' of prejudice by Anoka County judge

An already controversial Anoka County judge is facing allegations that he showed prejudice against multiple juveniles based on their national origin, ethnicity and because they don’t speak English.

The Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards, a state oversight agency that handles complaints and discipline for judges, is investigating Judge John Dehen for a “pattern of making statements” and issuing rulings that “manifest prejudice,” according to a recently filed complaint. 

The investigation states Dehen denied guardianship petitions for five at-risk juveniles — 18- to 21-year-olds seeking court-granted support from family members or friends — and refused to step aside in one case even after he was made aware of his prejudice.

Dehen, who was first elected to the bench in 2010 and has previously been privately admonished by the state board, declined an on-camera interview.

His attorney, Tom Weidner, denied the allegations against him and said we “look forward to the opportunity to address each claim in detail at the hearing before the judicial panel.”

In one case last year, records show that Dehen denied the guardianship request of a 20-year-old juvenile, who says she was fleeing physical and sexual abuse in Honduras, in part because she didn’t speak English. In another case, Dehen wrote that a proposed guardian was unfit to take care of a juvenile because of his inability to speak English.

Records show Dehen denied another petition from Ayan Ahmed, a 19-year-old from Ethiopia, after asking questions the state board said “gave the appearance he was considering (the juvenile’s) immigration status.” 

The Minnesota Court of Appeals has ruled immigration status should not be considered in these hearings.

“I didn’t really know how to respond in the moment because I had never been in this situation,” said Evangeline Dhawan-Maloney, who represented Ahmed in court. “There’s really no need to consider immigration status or future immigration consequences.”

Dhawan-Maloney successfully had Dehen removed from the case and a new judge granted Ahmed’s petition.

Rare denials

In 2022, Minnesota lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a bill creating a new guardianship procedure to protect youth from trafficking, neglect or abuse. Most of those cases are people who are considered immigrants under federal law.

Nearly 500 at-risk juvenile petitions for guardianship have been approved across the state, according to data obtained by 5 INVESTIGATES through a records request.

Under the law, the courts must grant the petitions when both the juvenile and the guardian agree it’s in their best interest and reunification with parents isn’t viable.

“The judge is there to simply make sure everybody understands what’s going on in the process and basically to sign the order,” Dhawan-Maloney said.

Denials for these kinds of petitions are rare. A 5 INVESTIGATES analysis of court data and judges’ decisions shows just 3% of all at-risk juvenile petitions for guardianship have been denied since August 2022. 

Court data shows there were five denials in Anoka County — all of them from Judge Dehen.

Weidner, Dehen’s attorney, told 5 INVESTIGATES that “Judge Dehen decides each case individually based upon the evidence presented and whether the burden of proof has been met by the parties.”

Controversial past

In three instances, judges have either overturned Dehen’s findings or ordered him removed from an at-risk juvenile case.

Chief Judge of the 10th Judicial District Stoney Hiljus found Dehen “has a history of explicitly and implicitly inquiring into the immigration status” of juveniles. Hiljus said in an order removing him from one case that a “reasonable examiner” could “question Judge Dehen’s impartiality” and “his bias.”

In November 2023, the board began investigating Dehen over a conflict of interest accusation. Those claims are tied into the same complaint against Dehen surrounding at-risk juvenile petitions.

The state board previously admonished Dehen in 2022 after it found he “abused the prestige of judicial office” by threatening two people he later sued over a Facebook Marketplace sale. He also made headlines in 2012 because he wanted to carry a gun in the courthouse.

Judge Dehen will have the opportunity to defend his case in a hearing before a judicial panel.