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Judicial system in Greenwood family's blood

Jay Greenwood, left, and Dann Greenwood pose Saturday in the Stark County Courthouse in Dickinson.

Jay Greenwood had a plan when he was younger. The Dickinson attorney originally planned to enter medical school.

Though his father and grandfather were both attorneys, Jay said he hadn't given a legal career much thought, instead choosing to attend the University of North Dakota to study biology with an eye toward becoming a doctor.

"We were always around it growing up, but I never really thought about becoming a lawyer," Jay said. "I even took the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test). I remember calling my dad and he was telling me that the LSAT was on a certain day, so I decided to take it."

Jay's father is Dann Greenwood, a Dickinson native and newly elected Southwest District Court judge. Following what Jay and Dann referred to as "the call," the younger Greenwood started down a path that eventually led to him becoming a public defender, working out of the state's Dickinson office.

Dann insists that, if anything, he leaned toward his son choosing a different career path than his own.

"I remember it well," Dann said. "Jay called me and said 'I don't want to go to med school.' I asked him what he wanted to do because, although I've enjoyed practicing law, there are a lot of easier ways to make a living. I kind of suggested he explore something else."

It wasn't long before Jay was on his way to following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Lawrence "Larry" Greenwood, while attending Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore.

"I remember he told me that (the LSAT) was on a certain day and that I could still sign up for the test," Jay said. "I don't think I even studied for it. I decided to go out to Portland because, at the time, I was interested in environmental law, but I found out there were people way more gung ho about environmental law."

With attorney positions difficult to come by when Jay graduated from law school, he decided to take a clerkship under former Southwest District Judge Allan Schmalenberger back in his hometown. Seven years ago, Jay took a position as a public defender, offering legal representation to those who can't afford to hire a lawyer, and he hasn't looked back.

"I like what I do," Jay said. "I think if you talk to the majority of public defenders, they would say they do it out of necessity because that's the job available to them, but I like it. I don't know if I'm a crazy person because of that, but I like that I'm busy. There's new stories every single day and I enjoy representing people who can't afford attorneys."

Though Larry died in 1991, after nearly 40 years of operating a family law practice in Dickinson, his legacy is alive and well. After graduating from the University of North Dakota's law school in 1977, Dann joined the practice his father and uncle, the late Mark Greenwood, started in the early 1950s.

When former Southwest District Judge Patrick Weir announced his retirement last year, Dann -- at the prompt of many, including Jay -- decided to run for the seat, defeating Stark County State's Attorney Tom Henning in the 2012 election. A little more than three months into his new gig, Dann said he's busy, but enjoying his role.

"When you're an attorney, there's pressure to do your job well because a lot rides on it," Dann said. "But there's no pressure in the sense that you just make the best argument for your client and that's it. When the judge makes his decision, the lawyer isn't responsible for that decision. As a judge, on the other hand, you're making life-and-death decisions for people. That's a lot of weight."

As he stated at his investiture program at the Stark County Courthouse in January, Dann said a person shouldn't worry about any decision as long as he or she believes the right one was made.

"The way I've always looked at it is to have the same philosophy as I've had my entire life," Dann said. "If you do your best and if you make the decision that you think is right, then it shouldn't be all that stressful."

Though they spend a lot of time in the same building, one thing Dann and Jay won't ever do, they said, is face off in court. In accordance with state Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee rules, Dann said he does not preside over cases where Jay is involved.

"Nothing has really changed for me since he became a judge," Jay said. "Even if those rules weren't in place, I think (Dann) would go to the ends of the earth to make sure there was no appearance of impropriety. People have said, 'Hey, that's great that your dad is the judge,' but I don't think they understand that, even if he did preside over one of my cases, I think I would probably get the short end of the stick. But that's something that would never happen anyway."

With his son and grandson thriving in the legal profession in the city where he built his reputation as an outstanding attorney, one would think Larry would be looking down smiling, but Dann joked that might not be the case.

"My father would turn over in his grave about the idea of me being a judge," Dann said. "He had kind of a disdain for judges. He was a trial lawyer and he used to say, 'If you're not for me, you're against me.'"

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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