Goodhue County District Judge Timothy Blakely, 46, is accused of being a rainmaker from the bench. He was found by a state investigation to have been referring parties in his court to his own divorce lawyer, “Super Lawyer” Christine Stroemer who allegedly gave him a discount on his own bill for fees.
While state bar officials recommended the removal of Blakely, the Minnesota Supreme Court saw no reason why he should not be able to continue to be a judge — instead giving him a six-month suspension without pay.
Both the judge and Christine Stroemer with Collins, Buckley, Sauntry & Haugh rejected allegations of a quid-pro-quo, though it should be a matter of concern if the judge received a discount due to his position.
The opinion below includes highly disturbing language and findings, including the fact that the judge fell behind on his payments to the law firm and an email where the attorney discusses both a waiver of some costs while thanking him for referrals:
In October 2002, Judge Blakely retained William Haugh of the St. Paul law firm of Collins, Buckley, Sauntry & Haugh, PLLP (“CBSH”) to represent him in dissolution proceedings. When he retained CBSH, Judge Blakely agreed to pay the “usual hourly rate” charged by CBSH attorneys. At the time, Judge Blakely anticipated that his divorce could be resolved quickly and that his legal fees would be minimal. Judge Blakely’s case failed to settle, however, and Christine Stroemer of CBSH took over as the lead attorney in December 2002. Judge Blakely incurred substantial legal fees during the divorce proceedings and was not able to keep current with his bill.
In addition to representing parties in divorce and other proceedings, CBSH provides mediation services. Between 2000 and 2002, before Judge Blakely retained CBSH to represent him in his divorce, CBSH Mediation Services made a presentation to the judges in the First Judicial District, offering mediation services in family court dissolution actions. Judge Blakely attended the presentation. Although Judge Blakely was impressed with CBSH, his first mediation appointment of CBSH was not until December 2003, when he appointed Stroemer to mediate a Scott County dissolution action. At the time of the appointment, Stroemer was representing Judge Blakely in his divorce, and Judge Blakely owed CBSH more than $42,000 in legal fees. Over the course of the next three and a half years, Judge Blakely appointed Stroemer as a mediator or third-party neutral in another sixteen cases.
In addition to the mediation appointments, Judge Blakely referred people he knew to Stroemer for direct representation. Judge Blakely referred his personal tax accountant to Stroemer for representation in her divorce. The case ultimately generated significant fees for CBSH. While not aware of the exact amount, Judge Blakely believed the fees were similar to his own. Judge Blakely and his second wife also referred families using the wife’s daycare business to Stroemer for representation.
By the time the final dissolution decree was entered in his divorce in September 2004, Judge Blakely had made payments totaling $8,640 to CBSH, and owed approximately $98,000 in unpaid fees. Although Stroemer had agreed to accept monthly payments toward the bill, after the case was concluded she advised Judge Blakely that he needed “to make substantial payments to this office.” Stroemer offered to work with Judge Blakely to establish a reasonable payment plan, but also stressed her inability to continue carrying such a large outstanding balance on CBSH’s books.
On February 16, 2005, Judge Blakely called Stroemer to protest the interest CBSH was assessing on the unpaid balance on his account. Stroemer responded by e-mail, defending CBSH‟s ability to charge interest. She also stated “[Q]uite frankly, when the dissolution ends, the client is to pay the outstanding balance . . . with[in] 30 days.” Nonetheless, Stroemer agreed to suspend the interest as long as Judge Blakely was making reasonable, regular payments. After acknowledging Judge Blakely’s financial situation, Stroemer thanked him for the mediation appointments, stating in her e-mail message, “I DO want to thank you for the referrals and certainly appreciate the work. I’ll do my best to get those cases resolved and off the court calendar.”
In fairness to the lawyer, she did seem to hold the line on payments and some of the earlier emails did not evidence favoritism. The reference to the referrals, however, in the same email as the fee reduction was a remarkably dim decision, assuming it was an innocent mistake.
For the judge, the matter seems a bit more serious than a mistake of judgment. He had a conflict in my view sending business to a firm that was holding a large unpaid bill for personal legal services. What do you think?
Blakely was first elected to the bench in 1998 and represented himself in the matter.
Stroemer’s bio on the firm’s web site notes that she “has been named a ‘Super Lawyer’ and one of the ‘Top 100 Super Female Lawyers’ in Minnesota.”
For the opinion, click here.
For the full story, click here.