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Melbye out as judge in annexation case

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BEMIDJI — Beltrami District Judge John Melbye will no longer be presiding over the annexation lawsuit between Bemidji Township and the city of Bemidji, according to court documents filed Tuesday.

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Northern Township was brought into the lawsuit by Melbye earlier this month. Last week the township’s attorney sent a notice of removal asking for a new judge, which was filed in court  Monday. Melbye granted the request for removal, and on Tuesday documents were filed reassigning the case to Beltrami District Judge Paul Benshoof.

Attorney Jason Kuboushek, representing Northern Township, said Tuesday every party in a lawsuit has a right to file a request for removal in the first 10 days after being named a party.  

 “I think Northern Township was looking just for a new look at the case,” he said, declining to give a more specific response on the grounds that detailing the conversations between Kuboushek and township supervisors would violate attorney-client privilege.

However, Kuboushek did say the only action from Melbye in the annexation lawsuit he was knowledgeable on was the order naming Northern Township as a party to the lawsuit.

“To be perfectly honest, I haven’t been in the loop on Judge Melbye’s decisions or orders because we weren’t a party to the case,” he said. “The only order we were aware of was the order joining us to the lawsuit.”

Kuboushek praised the new judge in the case.

“I’ve had a number of cases before Judge Benshoof, and I find him to be a fine judge,” he said. “As far as assignments, I think he’s a good assignment.”

Northern Township chairman Mike Kelly welcomed the reassignment.

“On advice from counsel, we thought that a change in the judicial appointment needed to be made, so we’re fine with that,” he said.

John Steffenhagen, representing plaintiff Bemidji Township, condemned Northern’s move to replace the judge.

“There was no reason to do this … the court was objective, the court was straightforward and everything the court had done was legally sound,” he said. “It’s an unfortunate step that Northern, as literally their first appearance in this action, would seek to obtain a new judge.”

Steffenhagen said Bemidji Township’s position is that, as a defendant in the case, Northern is also liable for the financial damages Bemidji Township is seeking from the city of Bemidji. Bemidji Township has not yet put forth a specific monetary claim, merely a claim for damages in excess of $50,000.

Steffenhagen said Bemidji Township is seeking joint liability, meaning his side could essentially pick whether the city of Bemidji or Northern Township pays the damages if the judge rules against both governments.

Jim Thomson, the attorney representing the city of Bemidji, said filing the notice of removal was  Northern’s call, not the city’s.

“That’s their decision,” Thomson said. “The removal was at the request of Northern Township.”  

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