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Two months after the chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court lambasted an oversight board for mishandling an investigation into the state board that oversees lawyer discipline, the judge returned to the board Thursday with an apology.

Noting that relations between the Supreme Court and the oversight board have been "strained" in recent months, Chief Justice Lorie Gildea told members that she hopes the two sides can find a way to work together as they discuss whether to keep Susan Humiston as director of the state Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility (OLPR).

Humiston's two-year term expires early next year.

"It is no secret that the work of the board has recently faced some public scrutiny, and that scrutiny is certainly welcome," Gildea said. "However, during that process, I made public comments that some on the board felt were overly critical. Worse, I understand that some members of the board felt personally attacked by my comments. For that I apologize."

Gildea and Associate Justice Natalie Hudson spent more than an hour with members of the oversight board Thursday in an effort to avoid another confrontation over Humiston's performance.

In 2020, the board voted against renewing Humiston's contract after its investigation found that some staff members quit the agency because of alleged bullying by Humiston. Since Humiston became director in 2016, 15 staff attorneys have quit, including eight in the past year. By contrast, eight lawyers left OLPR in the prior 17 years.

Most of the attorneys who quit during Humiston's tenure told the Star Tribune that they left at least partly because of constant friction in the office. Former staff members have cited multiple instances of unprofessional conduct, including rudeness, condescension, insults, yelling, micromanagement and berating them in front of colleagues.

Humiston has denied mistreating employees, saying in a written response that she works every day to ensure a "collaborative and respectful work environment."

Hudson made it clear that the board is not to look into the departures, saying that subject will be handled by state Court Administrator Jeff Shorba, who will be interviewing current and former staffers as part of Humiston's performance review. Hudson said the board should focus on the way Humiston has implemented the board's policies and not on personnel matters, such as morale.

Board Member Michael Friedman said the board usually avoids dealing with the internal policies of OLPR because it doesn't want to "micromanage" the office.

"I am not aware of the director ever seeking policy guidance from the board, and I haven't seen the board seeking to give policy guidance and been stymied," said Friedman, former director of the Legal Rights Center, a nonprofit law firm in Minneapolis.

In a statement to the Star Tribune in October, Gildea chided the board for getting deeply involved in the agency's day-to-day operations.

In that statement, Gildea said the oversight board botched its investigation of Humiston's tenure, saying its vote against Humiston was "procedurally deficient" because the board failed to verify charges of bullying and acted with "incomplete and factually inaccurate information."

Several board members disputed those claims, saying they followed the court's rules and acted only when it became clear that Humiston's failures as a leader were insurmountable.

Board members clashed with the justices several times during Thursday's meeting as they sought guidance on the kind of information they could use in making their upcoming recommendation.

State Rep. Ginny Klevorn, a Democrat from Plymouth who has been on the board since 2017, pushed back when Hudson rejected four of the board's questions for Humiston.

Hudson told Klevorn that the board could use overall case management data to evaluate the efficiency of the office, but she warned against crossing the line into the performance of individual employees.

One of the questions proposed by the board sought the agency's turnover rate. Another asked what Humiston has done to "improve the unit-level performance of the office." A third sought details on what Humiston has done to enhance her employees' "career growth and training."

"To me, that is about case reduction," Klevorn said. "What policies are being implemented to make sure we get the numbers we need to get?"

To the relief of several members, Shorba said they could use monthly performance data that tracks the number of open cases in their review as long as Humiston has a chance to respond to the board's findings.

Despite a 30% decline in complaints during the pandemic, the agency still had 123 pending cases involving potential ethical violations that had lingered for more than a year in October, down from 133 last year but above the 115 open cases that existed in 2016, Humiston's first year. The Supreme Court justices want fewer than 100 open cases that are more than a year old.

After the meeting, Klevorn said she can work within the limits. "I think we can make a meaningful recommendation," she said.

Board Chair Jeanette Boerner also was optimistic.

"Justice Gildea's gratitude for our service and affirmation about the importance of our role was well-received," Boerner said after the meeting. "I believe we have the guidance needed to fulfill our obligation in making a recommendation regarding the reappointment of the director."