State’s first female chief justice urges community involvement

ST. PAUL (AP) — Judges should help communities solve problems before people get hurt, Kathleen Blatz said Thursday as she was sworn in as the state’s first female Supreme Court chief justice.
“Judges need to be a part of the broader dialogue of how to better solve the problems facing our communities and families,” she said. “Judges need to work with citizens on how to solve problems before they are measured in terms of victims and damaged lives.”
Blatz didn’t wait for her swearing-in to push for change. At her urging, the Supreme Court last week approved opening child-protection cases to the public over a three-year trial period expected to begin in June. County judges will decide whether they want to participate.
Critics fear that exposing families’ problems will cause more damage and pain and will deter those who fear the spotlight from coming forward. Blatz said if an evaluation of the pilot project shows that children have been hurt by the attention, she is willing to close it down again. But she doesn’t believe that will happen.
“A judge’s devotion to impartiality and fairness should not be construed to mean that judges have no interest or role outside of our courtrooms,” Blatz said. “Justice does not start and stop in the courtroom. It is bigger than that.”
Blatz, 44, began her public career as a state legislator 20 years ago while still in law school.
Appointed to the court in 1996, she replaces retiring Chief Justice A.M. “Sandy” Keith. Gov. Arne Carlson appointed Blatz to the top judicial post in October. Trial lawyer James Gilbert, 50, of Orono is her successor as associate justice. A Minneapolis plumber’s son, he has been chairman of Carlson’s Commission on Judicial Selection, which advised the governor on nearly 100 judicial appointments. His only bid for elective office was in 1972 when he lost to DFL Rep. Phyllis Kahn in a race for a House seat in Minneapolis. He also was sworn in Thursday.
As chief justice, Blatz assumes leadership of a state court system that includes 285 judges, 2,250 employees and a budget of $165 million.
Besides her career in the House, Blatz has been a Hennepin County prosecutor, a private attorney and a judge for the Hennepin County District Court. Court observers say she has made her mark as a thoughtful, steady advocate for drug-addicted youths, fatherless families and children in poverty.
Blatz was introduced to politics at age 8 when her father, Jerome, was elected to the Legislature. She followed in his footsteps when, at age 24, as a first-year law student at the University of Minnesota, she was elected to the Legislature from Bloomington.
Asked to list some key areas she will emphasize on the court, Blatz cited children and family issues; adding telecommunications technology, such as videoconferencing, into the court system to reduce judges’ travel time for case hearings; and using more alternative dispute resolutions in court.
Another priority is carrying out the court’s plan to overhaul operations to cope with expected increases in caseloads.