Dakota County's longest-serving county attorney announced Friday he is stepping down after 33 years in the role.

Attorney James Backstrom, who has been elected eight times since his first appointment in 1987, is resigning effective Feb. 27, citing ongoing health issues.

"Being a county attorney is not always an easy job. It comes with a lot of long hours and a lot of stress at times, but it also comes with a lot of fulfillment," Backstrom said. "I could not have asked for a more important and meaningful career."

Because Backstrom is leaving before his term ends on Jan. 1, 2023, the next county attorney will be appointed and serve until an election on Nov. 8, 2022.

Backstrom began working as a law clerk in the civil division of the Dakota County Attorney's Office in 1977 while still in law school. After graduating from William Mitchell College of Law in 1978, he was hired as an assistant county attorney, and within the next decade he was appointed the office's civil division head and then to the top job.

Backstrom said he's proud of the crime prevention programs he's started, the support his office has provided to victims, and the drug and treatment courts he's initiated to help people addicted to drugs or alcohol.

He recalled prosecuting two tough cases, both involving young children — the 1993 Corrine Erstad kidnapping case, in which defendant Robert Guevara was acquitted, and the 2001 murder of 3-year-old Dillon Blocker by his mother's boyfriend.

"You see at times the worst there is to see," Backstrom said. "And then at the same time … you see tremendous courage and strength by the victims or the surviving families."

In retirement, Backstrom said he will take time to rest and regain his health. He also joined the board of the Minnesota Elder Justice Center, which helps senior citizen crime victims.

Monica Jensen, Dakota County community relations director, said that over the 20 years she's worked with Backstrom, he has always "stuck to his mission of promoting justice." He's been transparent and accessible, she said, and explains legal concepts and victims' rights with passion, telling stories that stick with people.

Dakota County Commissioner Mary Liz Holberg said she worked with Backstrom for decades, as a state legislator and in her current role. He was "willing to try new programs and always very accessible," she said.

"We didn't always agree on everything but were always very agreeable," Holberg said. "In this era in which the public square is so contentious, I really respected that characteristic."

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781