When citizens appear before a judge, it's crucial that they believe they will receive fair, impartial justice according to law. That's one of the highest values prized by the court system. Public confidence in the integrity of courts is a cornerstone of our entire system of government.
That's why the recent Minnesota Supreme Court decision in the case of First District Judge Timothy Blakely is so baffling. The Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards recommended that he be fired. But last week, the state's highest court suspended and censured Blakely for misconduct, stopping short of removing him from the bench.
A careful reading of the facts in the case argues in favor of the judicial board's recommendation. The judge's actions over several years betrayed the public's faith in the judiciary. For that, he should have been permanently relieved of judicial duties.
The misconduct involves a $64,000 discount Blakely received on fees from his divorce lawyer. In 17 instances over the course of four years, Blakely referred people who appeared before him in his family law courtroom to his lawyer, Christine Stroemer, for mediation or related services. He failed to tell them that Stroemer was his attorney and that he had run up a large bill with her firm.
The board based its finding on a series of e-mails and other correspondence between Blakely and Stroemer that it determined revealed a conflict of interest. Those exchanges show that the judge was negotiating a discount while reminding his attorney that he had and would continue to send business her way.
In our book, that's a blatant abuse of judicial power. How could couples in Blakely's family court be sure that his referrals were in their best interests rather than his own?
In its opinion, the Supreme Court cited precedent as one reason to discipline rather than fire the judge. Since 1972, when a constitutional amendment and statute allowed for the removal of judges, only three judges have ever been ordered off the bench. In two of those cases, judges committed criminal acts. The third involved numerous incidents of professional misconduct (including dishonesty and conflicts of interest) that the judge committed or failed to disclose as an attorney before being elevated to the bench.
Apparently, the high court didn't believe Blakely's offense rose to the same level as those previous dismissals.
And though justices said the judge's behavior was "extremely disturbing" and that they were "troubled greatly'' by Blakely's failure to recognize the misconduct, they felt a "quid pro quo'' deal had not been proven.
Removal is indeed a harsh step, not to be taken lightly, and Blakely's punishment is serious. Clearly he had some difficult personal financial issues, so a suspension without pay was far more than a slap on the wrist.
Yet several passages in the court's decision emphasize that punishment in judicial ethics cases is really not about the accused. Rather it should be imposed to restore public confidence in the system.
In a situation as egregious as this, rebuilding faith requires stronger action.
Some judicial experts and observers speculate that the high court didn't remove Blakely because citizens probably will. The south metro-area judge's six-year term will expire in January 2011, so he'll be up for reelection next year. His suspension will end just before he could begin to run for office again. Challengers would likely step up to oppose him, using his suspension to campaign against him. Voters may do what the high court did not.
But the justices themselves should have upheld a higher standard.