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Sherri Richards, Published June 29 2013

Women of Influence: Changing careers, changing courtrooms – Borgen works to improve systems

MOORHEAD - Lisa Borgen was reading John Grisham’s “The Firm” when she turned to her husband, Brad, and said, “I think I want to go to law school.”

At first, he thought it was kind of crazy. But Lisa’s drive, independence and adventure in trying new things were some of the reasons he’d married his high school sweetheart.

“I knew when she makes her mind up to do something, she’s not going to bail,” Brad Borgen says. “I knew if she decided to go into the field of law, she’d be good at it.”

Lisa Borgen was in college at what is now Minnesota State University Moorhead, taking a criminal law class to fill an otherwise empty hour of her schedule.

It was her second run at the four-year school. She attended after graduating from Moorhead High School, but says she wasn’t a very good student.

After a year, she switched to North Dakota State College of Science, where she earned a nursing diploma in 1982.

Borgen worked as a licensed practical nurse in the neurological intensive care unit at St. Luke’s Hospital (now Sanford Health). She loved the work, but the hospital later decided LPNs couldn’t work in the unit.

That change led her back to school. And the Grisham thriller eventually led her to the bench.

After working as both a public defender and county attorney, Borgen, now 51, has served as a Clay County District Court judge since 2006.

“I never intended any of it,” Borgen says. “I like a challenge, and I like to do new things and I like to take risks.”

Her openness to change drives her work in what can be a rigid judicial system.

“She has boundless energy. She’s a very hard worker,” says former Clay County Judge Michael Kirk, who now sits on the Minnesota Court of Appeals. “I would describe her in our system as a change-agent, which is a type of personality which is very necessary but sometimes lacking in an institution like the courts.”

Three different hats

After graduating from the University of North Dakota School of Law in 1996, Borgen opened her own practice in Moorhead at the age of 34.

“In those days, if you were a woman lawyer, you did family law and worked for the men,” she says.

Instead, Borgen did contract work for the public defender’s office and indigent services, anything she could to pay the bills, she says.

She’d been practicing only a couple years when someone encouraged her to run for Clay County Attorney. She won, beating the incumbent.

Borgen says she was the first woman to hold the post, and at the time was one of six female county attorneys in Minnesota’s 87 counties.

In 2006, Borgen was appointed district judge by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty. She was elected in the post in 2008.

Kirk notes that Borgen moves swiftly into positions of leadership. She was picked by the Minnesota chief justice to serve as an at-large judge on the state’s Judicial Council, and as a co-chairwoman for the Judicial Branch’s eCourtMN Steering Committee, an initiative to move from paper files to electronic case records.

“I think she picked me because it is a big change,” Borgen says.

“She sees what needs to be done to make sure that the system she’s operating in runs effectively and does what should be expected of that system by the public,” Kirk says.

Changing lives

Borgen is an advocate of specialty courts, like Clay County’s drug court, which provides treatment for substance-abusing offenders.

“It changes lives,” she says. “It makes people who they should have been in the first place.”

Borgen says she’s a positive, friendly encourager to drug court defendants. In domestic violence court, started two years ago in Clay County as one of the first in Minnesota, she says she holds abusers accountable.

“Our goal is to help people have better relationships and be safe,” she says.

In the courtroom, Borgen often uses plain English, doing away with legalese, formal only to the point she needs to be.

She notes that defendants have a tendency to call her by her first name, something other judges don’t seem to encounter.

“I don’t ever call them on it because I don’t think they’re doing it disrespectfully,” she says.

Borgen refers to her chambers in the Clay County Courthouse as “her home.” The walls and bookshelves are cluttered with framed photos and plaques with motivational or funny sayings.

Across the hallway, in the small alcove leading to her courtroom, hangs a phrase perhaps most illustrative of Borgen’s straight-forward nature: “It is what it is.”

She says the most difficult part of her job is seeing people deal with severe chemical dependency or mental health issues, especially those who can’t parent as a result.

“That’s like a death sentence to a parent when you terminate parental rights,” she says. “But you have to look at what’s best for the child.”

Family life

Previously as an attorney and now as a judge, Borgen handles many child protection cases. Photos of families created by adoptions she formalized hang in her office.

In this way, Borgen also lives what she does.

In 1988, Brad and Lisa adopted their first child, from Haiti. She says, at the time, biracial families were somewhat unusual.

“If we were going to adopt, we wanted someone who needed us. Not that we needed them. They needed us,” she says.

They adopted three more times, including this February, adding 3-year-old Jaidyn to the family.

The Borgens are also grandparents to an almost 1-year-old.

“Your kids are the greatest things we do,” Borgen says. “This little one is going to keep us young.”

Borgen says she’s been every type of mom – soccer mom, hockey mom and orchestra mom, to name a few.

She also loves to travel, sometimes with a group of girlfriends, including her sister-in-law. They recently went kayaking with their daughters.

A bucket list goal is to visit every national park.

Brad describes Lisa as a supportive and committed spouse and mother.

“She’s always there for us, she’s always there for the kids, even though she has a busy career life,” he says.

Brad, in turn, is a calm, steadying force, she says. “He balances me.”

Influencing others

For Borgen, a woman of influence is someone who makes an impact. Someone who does something you remember.

“You might not remember the person, but you remember what they said or did or their values,” she says.

Jade Rosenfeldt, an attorney with Vogel Law Firm in Moorhead, says Borgen had an influence on her life and career.

Rosenfeldt’s mom worked with Borgen at Dayton’s department store, where Borgen worked while in school. Growing up, Rosenfeldt saw Borgen become a public figure through the local news.

“As a young woman growing up in Fargo-Moorhead that was really inspiring to see a woman was county attorney and doing really good things in the community,” she says.

Then, her senior year of high school, Rosenfeldt was the victim of a crime, one that Borgen prosecuted.

Seeing Borgen work close-up cemented Rosenfeldt’s desire to be an attorney. The two now serve together on the Clay County Law Library Board.

“She can have that impact because she works hard and shows you the way things are supposed to be done,” she says.

Rosenfeldt describes Borgen as true to herself, down-to-earth, pragmatic, demanding of respect but open and welcoming.

“I think she’s been inspiring to a lot of young women to the things you can achieve,” Rosenfeldt says. “You can also be a mom and you can work full-time and you can be someone who serves the community and you can do all these things and do them well.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556