Robert A. Blaeser
Originally published in the November/December 1995 issue.
Author: Nancy McLean
On Aug. 21, 1995, Hennepin County and the state of Minnesota welcomed Robert Blaeser as its newest judge. He was appointed by Gov. Arne Carlson and took the oath of office from former Minnesota Supreme Court justice Rosalie Wahl. The swearing-in took place in the Hennepin County Board Room. The standing-room-only crowd of friends and supporters cheered the addition of Blaeser, an American Indian, to the judiciary.
Judge Robert Blaeser, 41, grew up on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota. He is a member of the White Earth Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. Judge Blaeser’s parents and several extended family members still live on the reservation near Mahnomen, Minn. Both his parents came from large families. He grew up knowing many aunts, uncles, and cousins. Many have moved to other areas of the country and some, to other reservations. He feels the importance of his family and maintains the extended relationships today.
Judge Blaeser was a straight-A student and a football star at Mahnomen High School. After he graduated, he left the reservation for Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. He was the first member of his family to go to college. He chose Concordia because it was close to home and had an enrollment of only 2,000 students. Judge Blaeser’s college experiences were educational in an academic sense and an eye-opener in a personal sense. Off the reservation, he experienced jokes, bitter remarks, and generally negative attitudes toward American Indians. He seemed to have one foot in each world—Indian and white. This conflict became clear as he traveled the 70 miles from Moorhead to White Earth to visit family and friends.
Judge Blaeser was an excellent student, graduating summa cum laude. He had always assumed that he would return to the reservation after college to teach or work in the field of wildlife management. Sometime during his college years, however, he decided to go to law school. He’s not exactly sure when he made the decision but, gradually, the idea of law school became part of his career plan. Unlike many aspiring law students, Judge Blaeser didn’t know any lawyers. There were no role models; he couldn’t recall anyone from the reservation going to law school.
Since his appointment, Judge Blaeser has reflected on his personal history and changes that have occurred on the reservation where he was raised. One very positive note is the increased emphasis on the importance of education. When he was growing up, it was common for kids to drop out before completing high school. Graduation was simply not a priority. That has changed: the tribe encourages secondary and post-secondary education and even offers financial support to students. Most of the students who leave the reservation for college return. They feel most comfortable with other Indian people and with returning home.
In the fall of 1976, Judge Blaeser enrolled in the University of Minnesota Law School. During his law school years he was involved in many student activities. He was the student director of Legal Assistance to Minnesota Prisoners (LAMP). After his first year of law school, he worked as a law clerk for the field solicitor’s office, revising boundaries for Minnesota Indian reservations. In 1979, he graduated with honors and decided to start his career in the Twin Cities.
Judge Blaeser joined the Edina law firm of Thomsen, Nybeck, Herbst & Johnson. His practice focused in the areas of commercial litigation, personal injury, and workers’ compensation. In 1980, he left to form his own firm in Minneapolis. For the last 15 years he has managed a successful law practice, dealing primarily in the areas of commercial litigation, product liability, personal injury, and workers’ compensation. The majority of his work is done in the Twin Cities; however, he handles a significant number of cases in northwestern Minnesota.
One of his personal accomplishments involved a product-liability case in which he represented the wife and child of a man who had died while installing boat carpet. Judge Blaeser argued that the deceased, an employee of a marine dealership, died from inhaling toxic fumes from a contact cement product he was using. He negotiated a favorable settlement in this case of first impression. He has handled several other complex litigation matters in the metro area and in greater Minnesota.
Judge Blaeser’s experience in complex litigation helps him define the qualities he appreciates in judges. He believes by involving lawyers, the parties, and the people with settlement authority early in the court process, quick settlement can follow. He appreciates the style and abilities of Magistrate Judge Ann Montgomery. She has an ability to bring people together early and encourage settlement. By preparing herself and asking others to be prepared, she was a good role model for a judge who could settle cases.
Judge Blaeser has been involved in many community, legal, and bar association activities. Some commitments have been specific to the Indian communities, others to the organized bar, and still others to the community in which he lived and practiced law. They all demonstrate the diversity that Judge Blaeser brings to the bench.
Judge Blaeser was a founding member of the American Indian Bar Association. During his career, he has served as its first secretary/treasurer and sat until September on its board of directors. The organization cheered his appointment as the only American Indian judge in the state of Minnesota. In addition to the American Indian Bar Association, he has been active in the broader Minnesota Minority Lawyers Association. When he was the owner and manager of a small business (his law firm), Judge Blaeser was active in the American Indian Chamber of Commerce.
In 1994, Judge Blaeser began to serve as an associate judge for the Minnesota Chippewa Tribal Court of Appeals. This volunteer position allowed him to contribute to the tribe using his unique legal skills. He resigned from the Tribal Court of Appeals when he was appointed to the Hennepin County bench. He is alone in the state of Minnesota in bringing this type of prior judicial experience to the state trial courts. In a metropolitan area with a significant American Indian population, this bridge makes Judge Blaeser unique among his judicial peers.
Judge Blaeser was recruited for the Minnesota Supreme Court Racial Bias Task Force. He was one of two American Indians and the only Indian lawyer. He served with distinction and now serves on the Implementation Committee. His work with the task force and his work with the tribal courts brought him to Governor Carlson’s attention and his ultimate appointment to the bench.
In addition to being a leader in the American Indian Bar Association, Judge Blaeser serves on the Minnesota State Bar Association Board of Governors. For the last few years, he has chaired the Hennepin County Bar Association Nominating Committee. He works to diversify boards, committees, and other decision-making bodies within the organized bar by recruiting, nominating, interviewing, and selecting members with different backgrounds and perspectives. Through the contributions of Judge Blaeser and others, the organized bar is beginning to diversify.
By the time this article is published, Judge Blaeser will have been on the bench for three months. He is optimistic about his work and enthusiastic for the change that it brings. He has been a civil litigator for the last 15 years. His first year or two on the Hennepin bench will be spent handling criminal cases. Initially, he will preside over misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor cases and then move to a combination of felonies, gross misdemeanors, and misdemeanors. When he first began to practice law, Judge Blaeser handled some criminal cases but, he said, "That was at least 10 years ago." He is spending his time brushing up on criminal law and procedure, finding it both exhilarating and challenging.
On his first day presiding over court trials in Division IV (Southdale), Judge Blaeser had to deal with a member of the Posse Comitatus who refused to come inside the rail in the courtroom. The man refused to acknowledge the court’s jurisdiction and moved to dismiss his speeding charge citing, among other grounds, the flag and taxes. After the man’s motion was denied, Judge Blaeser was able to convince him to sit at the counsel table. The man was found guilty and Judge Blaeser assessed a fine. He asked the judge how he should pay the fine because the federal reserve notes were not legal tender. Judge Blaeser told him he could pay the fine in gold coins. This example of common sense and good humor is reflective of Judge Blaeser’s start on the bench.
Judge Blaeser has formed some initial impressions of his job and his work. He has been surprised by the number of criminal defendants who appear without counsel. He has assumed the responsibility of ensuring that they know and understand their rights. In addition to the number of pro se defendants, he has also been somewhat surprised by the role that alcohol and drugs play in the cases he has heard—not only in the more common driving offenses, but also in many of the domestic cases he has handled. He has found the probation staff to be most helpful in analysis and recommendation for offenders.
One of the most difficult types of misdemeanor offenses to deal with is the domestic assault. Judge Blaeser has learned early the quandary of detention for domestic abusers. The victim often wants the offender released for financial reasons but is still concerned for her personal safety. "Each case must be decided on its own merits; there are no easy answers," Blaeser has concluded.
Judging others is a new experience for lawyers. Even though Judge Blaeser had experience in the tribal court, there are differences. One large difference is in the volume of misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors in Hennepin County. Another difference is in joining a system of experts. Judge Blaeser has found that others in the system have been welcoming and extremely helpful to him. He has found it helpful to solicit advice from many within the system. He met with prosecutors, defense attorneys, and court system personnel to learn more about their work and how they fit into the criminal justice system. He knows he has to "learn the ropes" and assumes this will be an ongoing process that he will enjoy.
Judge Blaeser brings years of litigation experience, a commitment to the law and his communities, a security about who he is, and an excitement about a new career. These attributes will serve him well on the Hennepin County District Court bench.
Portions of this article have been redacted at the Judge's request.