See more of the story

Jim Fleming was already causing a stir two months into his job as Ramsey County's chief public defender.

"He came across as abrasive," recently retired Judge Margaret Marrinan said of her first encounter with Fleming in January. "I remember saying, 'Welcome to the system.' He just gave me … it was kind of an icy stare. I don't know if he even replied, and we were less than a foot apart."

So began Fleming's contentious relationship with the Ramsey County District Court bench that reached a boiling point on Nov. 6. Fleming was found in contempt of court for instructing one of his attorneys to skip her jury trial due to her caseload. The attorney, Baylea Kannmacher, was also found in contempt.

Fleming said he was determined to reform a system that puts his clients at a disadvantage.

"I think there was sort of a culture of, 'Let's just get along,' " Fleming said of Ramsey County. "Everybody was kind of in the craziness, and so they just didn't know the craziness. … This isn't a good way to administer justice."

A calendaring system adopted in the mid-1990s summoned attorneys for trial at any point during a judge's felony "trial block." The short notice — a few days to a few hours — makes it difficult to prepare for trial and plan for other cases, public and private defense attorneys have said.

Fleming faces a possible fine and jail time at a December hearing for his defiance of Judge Thomas Gilligan Jr., but it isn't deterring him. "My office and the lawyers are ready for change," said Fleming, who did not recall meeting Marrinan.

An outsider

Fleming made his name in Mankato working in and eventually heading the Blue Earth County public defender's office. After turning to private practice in 2007, he represented Minnesota State, Mankato football coach Todd Hoffner, who was cleared in a child porn case, and defended former Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson, who was convicted in a group attack that left Isaac Kolstad brain damaged.

Now he's shaking up the courthouse in St. Paul.

Under Fleming's leadership starting in November 2016, two social workers were hired to help public defenders argue for less prison time for defendants, and demands for speedy trials increased 13 percent this year largely due to requests from his attorneys.

On the day he and Kannmacher were found in contempt, his office began requesting second appearance hearings that had been skipped. (Kannmacher's finding was rescinded; Fleming's case is pending.)

All 49 public defenders also began taking both misdemeanor and felony cases that day instead of specializing in one or the other, a move some judges said could complicate scheduling.

Fleming has earned praise from defense attorneys, while some lawyers and judges privately fumed that his handling of Kannmacher's trial was unethical.

"Every time you push back like that, you're taking a chance," said Pat Kittridge, who worked in the public defender's office for 31 years and held Fleming's post for seven. "And it's somewhat complicated that Jim is an outsider in Ramsey County."

Fleming, 58, was born and raised in suburban Chicago to an Irish Catholic family. His mother was a nurse; his father, a cabinetmaker. He grew up with three younger sisters and went on to become the first in his family to attend college.

A short stint at Chicago's John Marshall Law School led to a transfer in 1984 to then-William Mitchell College of Law.

"I always wanted to be a lawyer," Fleming said, tracing the interest back to his father's attorney.

But he struggled to find his niche. It wasn't until he began clerking in 1986 in Ramsey County that Fleming found his calling — criminal trials.

"You could tell Jim was very earnest early on — pretty straightforward, no-nonsense type of guy," said Kittridge.

He worked as a prosecutor for five years before taking a managing attorney post in Mankato in 1995.

"At first, boy, very serious guy," Scott Cutcher, the chief public defender in Mankato, said of Fleming. "There was a time when he didn't want anyone to wear bluejeans."

The ban lasted less than a month.

Study confirms complaints

Fleming has become a rallying point for Ramsey County's trial inefficiencies, but the issues predate him by decades, and members of the private defense bar have long chafed at the county's practices.

Hennepin County has a shorter trial block, assigns trials to any judge available and provides clearer start dates for trials, several private defense attorneys said.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi raised the issue with the court in 2007 in his previous post as St. Paul city attorney.

"We would like to see some changes," Choi said. "At the end of the day, it causes a lot of work and stress."

The court commissioned a study published in 2015 that validated many of the concerns expressed by Fleming.

"Judges were upset with the complications they encounter in managing their trial blocks," the study said. "… Many often struggle to dispose of heavy calendars and backlogs."

The $68,143 study, which was mostly subsidized through a grant, prompted no policy change to how Ramsey County handled its felony trials.

Several factors have complicated the issue, said Ramsey County Chief Judge John Guthmann, including a more than 50 percent turnover in Ramsey County judges in recent years. Atop that, he said, homicide cases increased 21 percent and all major criminal cases increased 4.5 percent this year.

"We want to take the time to get it right," Guthmann said.

Guthmann and other members of the bench, Fleming and the Ramsey County attorney's office have met a number of times since the contempt finding. The group recently agreed to some new practices, including: changing felony trial blocks from four weeks to two, judges backing one another up more regularly and scheduling court and trial dates for complicated cases sooner and with more certainty.

"I'm hopeful that this will help," Fleming said, "… but I'm not so naive that I think there won't be bumps down the road."

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708

Twitter: @ChaoStrib