Trailblazing judge retires after 17 years

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 16, 2012 - 9:22 PM

Hennepin County Judge Robert Blaeser led the way for fellow American Indians in the field of law.

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Judge Robert Blaeser retired Friday as the state’s longest-serving American Indian judge.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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A visit to Judge Robert Blaeser's chambers quickly reveals the pride in his Ojibwe heritage.

A bronze eagle feather rests atop a stack of court papers in the office overlooking downtown Minneapolis, while his tribe's medicine wheel adorns a print of a large blue wolf.

His favorite piece, which is in a large frame on his wall, has long proven as functional as it is decorative.

Put on robes like feathers

And wear them

A symbol of honour

And Duty

The verse is one of several in the poem "In the Tradition of the Peacemakers," that his sister wrote days before he was sworn in as a Hennepin County district judge 17 years ago. The poem compares his duties as the state's longest-serving American Indian judge to those of his ancestors, urging him to become a warrior for justice. It's a vow the 58-year-old took seriously.

"This job requires both roles," Blaeser said. "My real job is being native, and in my work as a judge you have to do what is right. You have to be strong even if you don't feel good about it."

Blaeser, whose most recent leadership role was head of Hennepin County's Civil Division, retired Friday. He leaves behind a reputation as a trailblazer as both attorney and judge who co-founded the Minnesota American Indian Bar Association, revolutionized the handling of foster care cases involving Indian children in Hennepin County Juvenile Court, helped to ensure tribal court jurisdiction was recognized, and streamlined an overburdened civil court system.

He's proud of it all, he said, but most fondly recalls his six years overseeing juvenile court cases, where he reworked processes for Indian children in child welfare cases with special attention toward the appointment of Indian guardians.

"Growing up on the reservation, 'social worker' was a bad word, because it meant kids were going to be taken away," he said. "The people remember when they came and took the kids, and it transfers through the generations."

Things have since changed, he said. He recalls presiding over a case in which both the county attorney and social worker were American Indian.

"I know you don't agree," he recalls telling them. "But has there ever been in this courtroom all native people looking out for what's best for this child? Just look at it. Just take a look around."

Born to a German father and Ojibwe mother, Blaeser was raised on the White Earth Reservation in northwestern Minnesota, where he grew up hunting, fishing and trapping. He was the first in his family to go to college and the first on his reservation to go to law school. As soon as he began his professional career, Blaeser was determined to provide a support system like the one he never had.

Upon graduation, he became a civil litigator in Hennepin County and northwestern Minnesota, where he helped to found the Indian bar association, which awards scholarships to Indian law school students. This year, every Indian law student in the state received a scholarship.

"He's been a generational leader. There weren't very many American Indian lawyers when he was sworn in, and now there's, relatively speaking, many more," said Minneapolis trial lawyer George Soule, whom Blaeser recruited to join the Indian bar association in the early 1990s. The two have remained friends ever since.

In retirement, Blaeser plans to continue practicing as an attorney in mediation and arbitration issues and possibly one day work with his wife, Lenor Scheffler, an attorney who works on Indian legal issues. An avid outdoorsman, he plans to continue his hobbies which include poker -- he's twice competed in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Most important, he said, he intends to continue to work with the White Earth Reservation.

"I go home as often as I can," he said. "It helps me stay connected and remember why I'm doing it."

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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