United States Federal District Court Judge Donovan W. Frank is the winner of the 2023 Access Press Charlie Smith Award for 2023. The award will be presented at a celebration Friday, November 3 at McNamara Center at the University of Minnesota’s East Bank campus. Tickets for the event are now available.
The award is given to Minnesotans who provide outstanding service to people with disabilities. Nominations come from community members. The winner is chosen by the Access Press Board of Directors.
Board members agreed that they had a strong field of nominees to choose from, but that Frank is uniquely qualified. He has presided over some of Minnesota’s most important cases that involve people with disabilities and their rights.
“Judge Frank’s work has been crucial in matters that affect the daily lives of Minnesotans,” his nomination stated. “He has been fair and thoughtful, and has been able to advance critical needs through his work. He sees the needs of the community and his rulings back that up. Recognition is long overdue for rulings that protect people with disabilities.”
Frank has been involved in several high-profile cases involving people with disabilities. One is the case involving Minnesota Extended Treatment Options, a state-run facility in Cambridge. Staff there was accused of harshly punishing clients with disabilities, even break one person’s arm. Use of seclusion and restraint was at the heart of the challenge families made.
Work to jump-start Minnesota’s Olmstead Plan came out of that 2011 settlement. Since then Frank has been someone Minnesotans have counted on, to make sure that the plan was properly developed and put into place.
At one point he called for more work on the plan, saying it was too vague and lacked “concrete, reliable and realistic commitments” on firm timelines and deadlines for implementation.
Olmstead refers to a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Olmstead v. L.C., that made it unlawful to keep people with disabilities in institutions when they could live in the community.
Frank has presided over other cases involving Minnesotans with disabilities, including a recent case tied to Olmstead and the plaintiffs’ rights to live in the communities they choose. That case was Murphy vs. Harpstead, and was settled recently.
Frank is a senior U.S. District Judge for the U.S. District Court, District of Minnesota. Born in Rochester, he is a graduate of Luther College in Decorah, Iowa and the Hamline University College of Law in St. Paul.
He began his legal career as an assistant county attorney in St. Louis County, Minnesota. In 1985, he was appointed a state district court judge in Minnesota’s Sixth Judicial District. Frank served as an assistant chief judge of that court from 1988 to 1991. He was chief judge from 1991 to 1996.
On May 21, 1998, President Bill Clinton nominated Frank to the seat on the U.S. District Court, District of Minnesota vacated by David S. Doty. He was confirmed on October 21, 1998 and received his commission on October 22, 1998. He assumed senior status on October 31, 2016.
His career includes years of experience practicing law in northern Minnesota, and as a judge in the state courts. He brings to the bench his life experiences, which have provided additional insights and understanding of the lives and needs of people with disabilities. He has also worked within the federal court system itself, to enlarge employment opportunities for people with developmental disabilities.
In interviews, Frank has spoken of life experiences that shaped his views on disability. One was from childhood.
“From the time I was a little boy and really old enough to understand, at least so I thought, my Dad insisted on taking one of his older cousins, Dutch, who was developmentally disabled, to church with us on Sundays. He also insisted that Dutch should help us around my Dad’s little TV and appliance store in southeastern Minnesota. Dutch lived on a farm outside of my hometown,” Frank said.
“It was my parents, as I look back on it, who taught me not to perpetuate so many stereotypes of individuals with special needs or disabilities. However at the same time, it was important that we give them opportunities, and that’s as my parents taught me, to realize their full potential and to live productive lives. I grew up watching my mother and father truly caring for people like Dutch in our community, with many acts of kindness and opportunities.”
He has also spoken of the rights of people with disabilities, the need for equal protection under the law, and how people with disabilities should be treated.
“I have observed firsthand that even a temporary loss of employment creates severe hardships, because many individuals with developmental disabilities not only completely rely on the income from these jobs, but more importantly to me, the dignity that is associated with being productive and needed members of society brings a quality of life to each of them, just like it does to each of us. . . ”
“Who can argue with me when I say that we are a better and stronger workforce that truly represents the community within which we live and work? And so when I am out and about, to put it one way, whether in my personal life or professional life, and I observe that individuals with developmental disabilities and other people with severe disabilities of all kinds are employed, be it part-time, full-time, I do my very best to seek out a manager, a department head and thank them for employing these individuals, and I promise them that I will not only be back to do business with them because I believe it a measure of being a good employer, a good neighbor, and a good business when they have a diverse workforce. I also tell them I’ll spread the word that this is a good employer.”
Frank has also spoken of the work people with developmental disabilities have done at the federal courthouse, saying that working in the same facility and sharing their experiences and struggles has taught him to be a better judge. How people are treated is very important. “Were they listened to? Were they treated with dignity and respect and patience?”
The November 3 event will be emceed by KARE-11 journalist Boyd Huppert. It will also include a tribute to the late Tim Benjmain, the longtime executive director of Access Press.
Tickets may be purchased at www.accesspress.org, for $75 per person or $600 per table of eight. Contact Jane Larson or Catherine Hunter at [email protected] or at 612-562-7803 with questions, need more information, or wish to sponsor the event.