Ramsey County Attorney John Choi left private practice a dozen years ago and has made a name for himself as a courageous, innovative prosecutor
By Dick Dahl
Late in 2005, John Choi was pursuing a secure career as a 35-year-old partner in the firm of Kennedy & Graven in Minneapolis when he received a phone call that would dramatically change the course of his life.
The caller was Chris Coleman, who had just been elected to his first term as mayor of St. Paul. Coleman invited Choi to have lunch with him, an offer that Choi accepted with a bit of puzzlement—after all, he had supported Coleman’s opponent, Rafael Ortega.
The two men met a couple of days later, and it wasn’t until halfway through their lunch that Choi realized what Coleman’s agenda was. He wanted Choi to serve as his city attorney.
“I’d never really thought about that, and it put a heavy thought into my head,” Choi recalls. “I’d worked so hard to get where I was in private practice, and this would be a pay cut.”
Nevertheless, the offer was alluring. Choi had fond memories of community service—during his undergraduate days at Marquette University, he organized an effective student/community mentoring program for youths in poor neighborhoods—and also enjoyed working for a St. Paul city councilman during law school.
In weighing the pros and cons, Choi sat down with his parents, who had immigrated to the U.S. and St. Paul from South Korea in 1973, when John was three years old, to talk about the offer. His father, Peter, had worked in a Coca-Cola plant. His mother, Barbara, worked as an assembler at Sperry Univac and then became a nurse. His discussion with his parents turned out to be the clincher.
“They were just so honored that their son could be city attorney—and I realized this is a pretty big deal and I should do it. So I took the job and I left my practice.”
Today, Choi is the Ramsey County attorney and is known—even outside Minnesota—as a prosecutor who is not afraid to make bold moves. In late 2016, he announced that he had chosen not to convene a grand jury to hear charges against a police officer who shot and killed African-American motorist Philando Castile and instead would bring the charges himself. It was the first time in anyone’s memory that a Minnesota police officer was criminally charged in a fatal shooting. While that effort was unsuccessful—a Ramsey Country District Court jury found officer Jeronimo Yanez not guilty of manslaughter—Choi’s decision has been hailed as a courageous prosecutorial move to bring greater accountability to the procedures under which police officers’ use of deadly force is assessed.
Love for public service
Choi describes his transformation from law-firm partner to high-profile prosecutor as almost a natural evolution born of his love for public service and his St. Paul roots. The Choi family’s first home in St. Paul was the 24-floor low-income apartment building called Skyline Towers near I-94 and Hamline Avenue. A few years later, when John was in first grade, the family moved to Eagan, where he attended Rahn Elementary School before attending and graduating from St. Thomas Academy High School.
Choi then attended Marquette, in Milwaukee, where he got his first taste of public service in creating Students Enhancing Education, a program that provided university student mentors for neighborhood children who needed to improve their reading skills. “I still think that’s one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life,” he says.
Choi received a B.A. degree in psychology in 1992, and he became captivated by national politics for the first time that year as he tracked Bill Clinton’s successful run for the presidency. He began to think about political involvement in some capacity as he enrolled that fall at Marquette’s law school, but after a year he felt the urge to move back to Minnesota. He enrolled at Hamline University School of Law and immediately began working on the mayoral campaign of St. Paul City Councilman Bob Long. When Long’s bid ended at the endorsement convention, he found a job for Choi as a legislative intern in his city council office.
Choi has good memories of his time in the classroom at Hamline. “I really loved my professors,” he says. “I was a big fan of Mary Jane Morrison. I really enjoyed my classes with Bill Martin. But there were a number of professors there who I thought were really good.”
Among the friends Choi made in law school was Dan Lew ’95, now the chief public defender for northeastern Minnesota, who remembers Choi as a very serious, hard-working student.
“He was always the most civic-minded guy,” Lew recalls. “I remember he invited me to volunteer for a group called Songs of Hope—mentoring kids who were struggling in disadvantaged communities.”
After receiving his J.D. in 1995, Choi was hired as an associate attorney at Hessian, McKasy and Soderberg in downtown Minneapolis, where his work focused on commercial litigation. After three years, he joined Kennedy & Graven, a firm that provides general and special counsel to Minnesota cities. He made partner there after only three years.
Following his fateful meeting with mayor-elect Coleman, Choi entered his new job as St. Paul city attorney needing to learn on the job. “I came in with a fresh perspective,” he says. “I wasn’t so much shackled with having been in the system, and I think that the process of getting up to speed on things is where I fell in love with criminal-justice issues.”
He collaborated with others to develop and implement a program called Blueprint for Safety, which linked the city’s criminal-justice agencies together into a domestic-violence intervention network. He also developed a “driver diversion program,” in which people whose driver’s licenses had been suspended for failure to pay speeding tickets could get their licenses back by setting up payment plans for their fines. That program is now statewide.
A ‘first’ as county attorney
Choi developed a reputation for his work as city attorney, and “a lot of people,” he says, were encouraging him to run in 2010 for the Ramsey County attorney seat that was being vacated by Susan Gaertner due to her bid for the governorship. Choi won 54 percent of the vote against opponent David Schultz to become the first elected Asian American county attorney in Minnesota and the first elected Korean American chief prosecutor in the United States.
Choi had identified sex trafficking of people under the age of 18 as an issue that he wanted to address immediately after taking office. He did so by making a policy change that anyone under the age of 18 who is found to be engaging in prostitution henceforth be treated as a child in need of protection and not charged with a crime. That policy change ultimately led to legislative enactment of the Safe Harbor Law in Minnesota.
“We’ve dramatically increased prosecution of traffickers across the state,” Choi says. “There’s been a total sea change.”
Caroline Palmer, legal and public affairs director at the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault and an adjunct professor at Mitchell Hamline, worked with Choi and his office in developing the protocols for what became the Safe Harbor Law.
“John was the first county attorney to call upon other county attorneys in the state to look for ways to provide services for youth instead of putting them into the criminal justice system,” she says. “He’s really provided excellent leadership on this issue.”
In another matter involving sex abuse, Choi negotiated an agreement with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 2016 over long-standing sexual-abuse allegations involving priests. He dropped charges, amending a 2015 civil settlement, thus requiring the church to admit its role in covering up the cases.
Castile verdict a disappointment
After the jury returned its verdict acquitting officer Yanez on June 16, Choi stood before the news cameras to address the public. “As hard as this is for some members of our community, we have to accept this verdict,” he said. “I understand that this verdict brings a lot of hurt and pain and deep-seated frustration for a lot of people in this community.”
Former Hamline Law Dean Don Lewis, who served as a special prosecutor in the case, later expressed his pride for how Choi handled himself throughout the case.
“He brought me in as a special prosecutor, but it was in the role of advising his office and not making decisions for him,” Lewis says. “He held the ultimate responsibility of making that prosecution decision because he understood that he was accountable to the people of Ramsey County. He wasn’t going to delegate it to a special counsel and he wasn’t going to delegate it to a grand jury.”
Lewis used the term “extraordinary” to describe Choi’s decision to not convene a grand jury. “And I say that because there are a lot of prosecutors around the country who like to delegate those decisions elsewhere because they want to avoid the accountability.”
For Choi, the verdict was a disappointment. But he says he’s never doubted the decision he made 12 years ago to leave the relative peacefulness of life in a law firm for the oftentimes stressful job of a prosecutor.
“I’ve never looked back,” he says. “It was the right decision because it was born out of what was in my heart.”
Dick Dahl is a freelance writer and editor in St. Paul.