The Minnesota Supreme Court has temporarily suspended the former longtime Fairmont city attorney from practicing law because of a years-long backlog of cases in which she failed to make charging decisions.
The court found that Elizabeth W. Bloomquist, Fairmont city attorney from 1989 until 2019, took no action on at least 135 police reports. It suspended her from practicing law for at least 30 days.
In responding to the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility's petition for disciplinary action, the court said Bloomquist's mistakes were not abuses of power but instead "mere incompetence or lack of diligence." The court also noted that the cases in which no charging decisions were made all occurred after Bloomquist's full-time legal assistant at the city began taking on other duties in 2012.
After the assistant's reassignment, Bloomquist told the court she only received about 20% of her assistant's time, and no other staff resources were granted to help her manage the caseload. Bloomquist notified the city that the staff reduction affected her work.
"It really was an issue of staffing being inadequate, which interfered with the attorney's ability to diligently manage her workload," said Susan Humiston, director of the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility.
City attorneys prosecute misdemeanors and occasional gross misdemeanors, not felonies. Of the at least 135 cases where no charging decisions were made, 51 were time-barred; 27 of those time-barred cases involved domestic assaults. Minnesota law compels prosecutors to notify victims in domestic assault cases whether they are declining prosecution or dismissing criminal charges against a defendant.
In handing down the suspension, the court noted, "We have not addressed a situation in which a government attorney neglected a large number of charging decisions in this manner."
Bloomquist, who had admitted the allegations and asked for a public reprimand, not a suspension, did not immediately respond to phone messages from the Star Tribune.
The court decision, however, may be more symbolic than anything, as Bloomquist is no longer practicing law.
Since 2019, Fairmont has revamped how it handles city attorney duties. Previously, the city attorney handled misdemeanor criminal prosecutions as well as governmental legal matters such as municipal law and land-use law. Now, the city contracts with a St. Paul law firm for government matters, and the Martin County Attorney's Office handles all criminal cases.
The city and county now use a new criminal case management system that makes criminal referrals more seamless, and the county attorney now meets with Fairmont police every three months to review open cases and ensure charging decisions are made in a timely manner.
"We've established redundancies to make sure things don't fall through the cracks," said Taylor McGowan, the county attorney. "We're trying to be more attentive to that stuff."
Cathy Reynolds, the Fairmont city administrator, said the Supreme Court's action has no bearing on how things operate in the city today.
"This is something that occurred in 2019, and the city took actions and looked at these matters back in 2019," she said. "We moved on. We aren't re-digging up matters from back then. It's more an indication of how long the system takes to process."