A south-metro judge who steered clients to his divorce attorney and got a deep discount on his bill will be suspended without pay for six months, the Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled.
The court also censured First District Judge Timothy Blakely in an opinion, issued Thursday, that stopped short of removing him from office, the penalty that the Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards had recommended.
The course of events that led to the sanctions was "extremely disturbing," the Supreme Court wrote, adding, "We also are troubled greatly by Judge Blakely's continued lack of insight into his misconduct." But both the judge and attorney Christine Stroemer denied -- and the board could not prove -- that the two had an actual "quid pro quo" deal, the court wrote.
Blakely, who had asked for no worse than censure, was not available for comment Thursday because he was out of state dealing with a family emergency, said Thomas Kelly, an attorney who represented the judge in the matter of his misconduct. "He was a hard-working, intelligent, fair-minded judge before he made this mistake," Kelly said. "He has no other history of misconduct, and I'm confident that he'll return to the bench prepared to resume his duties in an impartial and judicial manner."
Some experts do not share that confidence, including Neil Hamilton, a law professor and director of the Thomas Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions at the University of St. Thomas.
"The situation indicates such extremely poor judgment that it certainly leads a person to question his judgment on the bench," said Hamilton, adding that it's unlikely the judge will regain the public's trust before his term expires in January 2011.
Blakely, 46, was first elected to the bench in 1998 and has chambers in Goodhue County, but has heard many cases in Dakota County. The First Judicial District also includes McLeod, Carver, Scott, Sibley and Le Sueur counties. He has been suspended with pay since May.
The misconduct centers on a $64,000 discount that Blakely received from his divorce lawyer, to whom he sent 17 clients from his courtroom for mediation or related services over the course of four years. He did not tell clients that Stroemer was his attorney and that he owed her firm a lot of money.
In 2002, Blakely began a bitter divorce and had trouble paying legal fees. He ended up owing Stroemer's firm more than $109,000 and paid about $45,000. The firm wrote off the rest.
The judge paid part of the bill in a lump sum of about $32,000 from the sale of his house. In a related e-mail to Stroemer, he wrote, "I recognize this may not be a small compromise in your view. ... There is also very substantial past, and future, benefit to you from significant business referrals we have made in excess of the compromise we are asking for."
Blakely later said he was talking about "private referrals" of friends and families using his second wife's day care business, not the 17 cases in which, acting in his official capacity, he appointed Stroemer for mediation or other services.
In e-mails about the outstanding legal fees, Stroemer repeatedly thanked him for the mediation referrals, and the judge "did not disabuse her of any notion that there was a connection between the mediation referrals and the discounted bill," the court wrote.
Stroemer remains under investigation by the Minnesota Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility. That agency had been waiting for Thursday's ruling before deciding whether to seek discipline of Stroemer, a call that will be made within the next two months, said director Martin Cole.
The judge's actions were scrutinized after his ex-wife filed a complaint in March 2007 with the Board on Judicial Standards, claiming he got special treatment from his divorce attorney's firm.
Thursday's decision was in line with the penalty recommended by a three-member fact-finding panel that the Supreme Court had earlier appointed to review the matter.
The court also reprimanded Blakely as an attorney and said that if he stops being a judge before his suspension is up, he won't be able to practice law for the rest of that time.
In a partial dissent from the court's opinion, Justice Paul H. Anderson called for a more severe penalty of suspension through June 2010.
If the Supreme Court had removed Blakely from office, he would have been the fourth Minnesota judge to be kicked off the bench since 1972.
Star Tribune staff writer Joy Powell contributed to this report. Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016