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Cook County Attorney back in court on sex assault charges

FILE - In this Jan. 26, 2012 file photo, Cook County Attorney Tim Scannell is shown in St. Paul, Minn. The Star Tribune, Brian P

Embattled Cook County Attorney Tim Scannell will be back in court this morning for his first public appearance since being indicted on two counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct for an alleged inappropriate relationship with a 17-year-old girl.

Scannell, 47, will appear as a defendant at the Cook County Courthouse, where for nearly seven years he has served as the county’s top prosecutor. It’s possible that Scannell could enter a plea during the hearing, and attorneys may raise other issues.

The case will continue to be heard by 6th Judicial District Chief Judge Shaun Floerke, who denied a motion last week to have each of the district’s judges removed from the case. A defense motion argued that a retired judge should hear the case because any judge who faces re-election could be swayed by community pressure.

In denying the motion, Floerke wrote: “This is not the first criminal case in the 6th Judicial District, or any other judicial district in Minnesota, in which community members have strong feelings about the outcome or which involves elected officials. The Minnesota Constitution requires that judges in this state are elected. Appointing a retired judge to hear a case simply because there are strong community opinions about it could be seen as unconstitutional.”

Floerke also denied a defense motion to have the indictment dismissed.

Special prosecutor Thomas Heffelfinger previously acknowledged that the case has garnered significant attention in the small community, and he said he was unsure whether future hearings would take place in Grand Marais or be moved to Duluth or another location within the district. If the case proceeds to a jury trial, either attorney could request a change of venue, and the final decision would be up to Floerke.

Floerke, who has chambers at the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth, assigned himself to the case after Judge Michael Cuzzo, who typically hears most Cook County cases, recused himself.

Since his initial appearance on Oct. 31, Scannell has retained Minneapolis defense attorney Joe Tamburino, who also represented him when he was served with a harassment restraining order in December 2012. Scannell was represented by Grand Marais attorney Richard Swanson at his first court appearance.

Scannell has refused to step down despite calls for his resignation and weekly protests outside the courthouse since the harassment order was filed last year. But he has been on medical leave from the county for unspecified reasons since mid-October.

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