South metro Judge Timothy Blakely apologized to citizens as he defended himself before the Minnesota Supreme Court last year, saying he "failed to recognize the issues that caused an appearance of impropriety."
The Supreme Court suspended him for six months for violating judicial canons and damaging the public's trust in the bench. The issue: He got a discount on his own legal bill while referring people in his courtroom to his attorney.
Now, election challenger Larry Clark, who is an assistant Dakota County attorney, and others in the legal profession say he shouldn't be reelected, not only because of his conduct but also his failure to admit it.
The race is for a Goodhue County seat in the First Judicial District, which also covers Dakota, Scott, Carver, Le Sueur, McLeod and Sibley counties.
In 2004, Blakely's marriage ended in a bitter divorce. He negotiated a discount of nearly $64,000 on $98,000 in fees with his divorce attorney, Christine Stroemer of St. Paul. He told her that she had benefitted from his "referrals."
Over four years, he had ordered 17 people from his courtroom to go to Stroemer for divorce mediation, never disclosing that she was his attorney.
In an e-mail Friday, Blakely explained his actions:
"My divorce became an area of great personal pain. I compartmentalized my life to a fault, leading to an unintended situation. I did not recognize the appearance of a conflict. ... I now better understand how problems can arise, and how to more promptly and decisively resolve them," Blakely wrote.
Clark, however, said "It was more than just an appearance. It was wrong."
"It's really offensive to me, when I think about a sitting judge having people come before him, and he is ordering those people who live a minimum of 40 miles away from the metro to drive up to St. Paul for their mediation, while at the same time he is receiving a $64,000 discount on his attorney fee."
Clark's boss, Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom, and Carver County Attorney James Keeler have joined with top prosecutors from three other counties in the district in endorsing Clark, who lives in Red Wing.
"From my perspective, Judge Blakely hasn't accepted responsibility for his inappropriate conduct," Backstrom said Friday. "I don't believe he deserves to continue to serve as a judge in this community. Clearly, it's a concern when a judge doesn't recognize an issue that's as plain as this one."
In May 2009, the Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards found that Blakely had carried out a years-long scheme to intentionally use his office for personal financial gain. It recommended removal from office.
Blakely had told that board that he "had the right and the duty to my family to have this bill dealt with in the only way that I knew how, and the only thing that I had."
Four months later, the Supreme Court ruled that Blakely "created the appearance" of misconduct in a course of "extremely disturbing" events.
"We also are greatly troubled by Judge Blakely's continued lack of insight into his conduct," the justices wrote.
Rather than removing him, they suspended Blakely for six months without pay.
Cean Shands, a defense lawyer from West St. Paul, said he was surprised at the suspension, given the "egregious" misconduct.
"Absolutely, he should have been removed from the bench," Shands said. "I've never seen a public reprimand so bad in regard to basic ethical considerations while you're a judge."
He's among lawyers who speak highly of Clark while describing Blakely as arrogant.
Attorney Carl Blondin, who became friends with Blakely in the Navy Reserve, has a different view of Blakely. Blondin calls him ethical and bright.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Tim's going to work hard and be fair," Blondin said. "I can tell he takes the job of judge very seriously."
In the August primary, Blakely won 40 percent of the vote. Clark drew 31 percent. Stephen A. Baker was eliminated with 29 percent.
Clark said he's running to help restore public confidence in the bench.
"The performance of this person has put a black mark on judges across the entire state," he said.
Blakely, of Eagan, has not been in his Red Wing chambers for more than a year.
That's because in March 2009, after returning from suspension, Blakely volunteered to travel to hear cases in Dakota, Scott and Carver counties.
Goodhue County Attorney Steve Betcher is among Minnesota lawyers and prosecutors who have endorsed Clark.
"Mr. Clark has impeccable integrity," Betcher said. "He has been the head of the Red Wing Human Rights Commission. It's ingrained in Mr. Clark to know and do what is right in his life, and I would expect the same kind of ethical conduct in his role as a judge, which I expect from all judges."
Said Blakely, in an e-mail: "I recognize that trust in the judiciary system is the keystone to our justice system."
Joy Powell • 952-882-9017