Law community cheers shamed judge's ouster

  • Article by: JOY POWELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 4, 2010 - 10:12 PM

Judicial elections generally fail to grab much attention unless there are issues of misconduct or incompetence.

In courthouses from Minneapolis to Red Wing, the perspective is widely shared: Voters Tuesday did what the Minnesota Supreme Court failed to do.

They kicked censured Judge Timothy Blakely off the bench.

Dakota County prosecutor Larry Clark glided to victory in the First Judicial District with 57 percent of the vote. He said he would never have run against a sitting judge had the misconduct case not surfaced.

"I really do feel like it was something larger than just me," Clark said, noting that many lawyers, judges, police officers and court workers campaigned for him.

"They were working hard because they all agreed that something had happened that really stained the office and they wanted to restore some integrity," Clark said.

Blakely, who served 12 years on the bench, admittedly directed more than 20 clients from his courtroom to his own divorce attorney without disclosing she was his attorney or that he was getting a discount on his bill.

The lawyer, Christine Stroemer of St. Paul, cut $63,503 from Blakely's divorce bill -- amid the judge's promises to continue referring clients to her, according to the Minnesota Board of Judicial Standards, which recommended that the high court remove Blakely. He was suspended for six months without pay instead.

The entire situation is rare, said David Schultz, a Hamline University law and business professor who specializes in elections and ethics.

"Most judges are ethical and never face serious criticisms about their ethics and behavior," Schultz said Thursday. "It is even more rare to see one suspended or removed. When sanctions for ethics occur, it is big news."

Blakely's unpaid suspension came in September 2009, months after he pleaded his own case, saying he hadn't realized he was creating the appearance of misconduct.

Blakely demonstrated such poor judgment that he never regained the public's trust, said Neil Hamilton, law professor and director of the Thomas Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions at the University of St. Thomas.

"Judicial races tend to stay below the radar screen for a great many voters, so they just vote for the incumbent unless there is some judicial misconduct or gross incompetence that the media picks up and raises to public attention," Hamilton said.

Blakely, 47, of Eagan, has presided since 1998 in the district that covers Carver, Dakota, Goodhue, Le Sueur, McLeod, Scott and Sibley counties. He didn't comment for this story.

He's one of only nine judges to be disciplined by the state Supreme Court since 1987. Two more judges, both from Hennepin County, are now in disciplinary proceedings.

Had Blakely been removed, he would have been only the fourth Minnesota judge to be removed since 1976.

His second term ends in January. Clark will then take over the seat, with chambers in Goodhue County and an annual salary of about $134,000.

Clark's victory remains a hot topic of discussion among attorneys, court personnel and law enforcement officers in the south and west metro areas.

"Let's just say that the sun is shining a little brighter in the First Judicial District," said defense attorney Bruce Rivers. "Everybody has wiped a little sweat off their brow and is breathing a little easier, and that's no understatement."

He, Clark and others said they hope the change will help boost public confidence in the system, which Blakely's censure eroded.

"The judges need the people's trust," Rivers said. "They're entrusted with people's lives and making the right decisions."

Paul Rogosheske, a South St. Paul attorney who helped raise funds for Clark, said while he and others wish Blakely well, they're glad Clark won.

"Any time you have a judge in a controversy like we had," Rogosheske said, "it's a relief to get a guy like Larry in there. That's the consensus."

Joy Powell • 952-882-9017

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