Children's justice: the legislative and judicial career of Minnesota chief justice.

Author:Slingerland, Molly J.
Position:Kathleen A. Blatz - Minnesota Supreme Court
 
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  1. INTRODUCTION

    The manner in which judicial decisions are made can be analyzed in various ways. More specifically, a judge's personal background and life experiences, as well as educational and professional accomplishments, all represent factors that help determine how a judge approaches a judicial inquiry. Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen A. Blatz is no exception to this proposition. Throughout her career there has been a commonality among issues, particularly adoption, protective child services, and providing safe and healthy environments for child development. Thus, by examining her career as a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives, in relation to her time on the bench, comparisons and distinctions can be drawn.

    Before becoming a member of the Minnesota Supreme Court, then Associate Justice Blatz commented on her new role in relation to her past experiences, noting that she could become the "eyes and ears" of children because of her past experiences with the justice and legislative system. (1) An examination of the common strands that run through Chief Justice Blatz's career reveals how they sometimes determine the outcome of many judicial inquires that come before her.

    The Woman Beneath the Black Robe

    This High Court Study highlights Chief Justice Blatz's career and reveals specific areas upon which she has had an impact. Part II examines the party system and political landscape in Minnesota. Part III reveals the significance of children's issues. Part IV explains Chief Justice Blatz's role in the Minnesota House of Representatives. Part V depicts the influence that Chief Justice Blatz has had as a member of the Judiciary, and Part VI examines particular cases that demonstrate the Chief Justice's commitment to children. Throughout each section a common theme of Chief Justice Blatz's commitment to children and families is examined.

    Chief Justice Blatz is unique not only because she holds the top position on the Minnesota Supreme Court, but also because she served the people of Minnesota as a State Representative for eight terms, from 1979 to 1994. (2) During this time she represented an area of Hennepin County, a suburban district of the Twin Cities, and was a member of the Independent Republican Party--a Minnesota affiliate of the national Republican Party. (3)

    With eight terms as a legislator, Chief Justice Blatz's accomplishments are extensive and diverse, yet common themes may be found throughout her legislative career. A significant portion of Blatz's career as a legislator was spent dealing with issues regarding children and families. For instance, the Chief Justice authored numerous bills to improve Minnesota's child protection system, served on the Governor's Commission on Economic Status of Women, and represented the Legislative Commission on Children, Youth, and Their Families. (4) Representative Blatz's legislative record reveals a commitment to authorizing and developing programs to benefit Minnesota's families. (5)

    Beginning her judicial career in 1994, Chief Justice Blatz served from 1994 to 1996 as a Federal District Court Judge for the Fourth Judicial District, and in 1996 was appointed to the Minnesota Supreme Court, of which she eventually became Chief Justice in 1998. (6)

  2. POLITICAL CONSIDERATIONS

    When the Chief Justice is up for re-election, the Independent Republican Party will use its convention system to determine whether or not it will endorse her candidacy. (7) The result is that both incumbent and aspiring members of the state's judicial branch are forced to seek party support and enter a politically charged process. Chief Justice Blatz, however, has spoken out regarding the importance of judicial independence. (8) She has argued that in order for the judiciary to properly serve all Minnesotans, it must "guarantee and protect the right of every citizen to have their cases decided fairly and impartially [and must not merely] adhere to a party platform." (9) While the party endorsement process ultimately may not have a huge effect on the job of an elected official, each election does provide voters with an opportunity to review job performance and gives party activists a chance to closely scrutinize past voting and judicial decision records. (10) This type of added political scrutiny can make running for a judicial position especially precarious.

    Chief Justice Blatz has participated in the party-driven system of Minnesota, yet at the same time has recognized and espoused the independent role of the judiciary. Nevertheless, when examining the many factors that influence the judicial decisions made by an elected official, as in the case of Chief Justice Blatz, politics must not be disregarded.

  3. CHILDREN'S ISSUES AT THE FOREFRONT

    Regardless of one's position, personal values and beliefs are reflected in one's professional work, and the judiciary is no exception. As a community activist (11) armed with a background in social work, (12) Chief Justice Blatz has made children's issues a priority. Throughout her career, both in Minnesota's State House and supreme court, children's issues have played a central role. (13) In her 2001 State of the Judiciary Address, for example, Chief Justice Blatz pointed to the potential and future of children. (14) Chief Justice Blatz made children's issues--specifically, the Children's Justice Initiative--one of the four focuses for the Minnesota judiciary in the coming years. (15)

    Highlighting a few major areas of change in the Minnesota child protection system reveals Chief Justice Blatz's leadership role as an advocate for children and families. (16) Proper protection for children has taken various forms. As the Chief Justice points out, the current state of Minnesota's guardian ad litem system represents an under-funded program that serves to help children in need of legal assistance. (17) Not only does the system lack proper funds, but there is also a shortage of individuals who possess the proper skills to adequately serve the needs of children. A study commissioned by the Minnesota Supreme Court revealed that over one-half of abused and neglected children in child protection proceedings (CHIPS) are not represented in court. (18) As a result, Chief Justice Blatz has highlighted these results continuously to heighten exposure and recognition of the many children in desperate need for legal representation. (19)

    Creating awareness of the under-representation of children has not been the extent of the Chief Justice's efforts. In January 2001, for example, the Minnesota Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Blatz, introduced the "Pro Bono Challenge For Kids," a two-year program aimed at increasing the number of guardians available to children needing legal representation. (20) The crux of her argument for providing a service to children in need is based in part on a recognition of the likely result of failing to take such measures--especially where children in the legal protection system are already at risk for future criminal behavior. (21)

    Adoption and obtaining a secure environment for children has been another area of importance throughout Chief Justice Blatz's career. (22) While adoption may not have been an issue that the Chief Justice purposely brought to the floor of the state House of Representatives, it encompassed many elements that greatly affected Minnesota's children.These elements surrounding adoption--such as parental rights and secure living environments for children--are, however, woven into some of the Chief Justice's most telling decisions on the Supreme Court. (23)

    In 1998, Minnesota revised its child protection system and implemented a new approach, known as "Concurrent Permanency Planning," for securing a child's welfare. (24) This new approach to foster care was designed to expedite the amount of time allowed for biological parents to demonstrate that they are fit to care for their children, and to provide a means of advising parents of the goal of finding stable, permanent homes as quickly as possible. (25) Despite the controversial nature of this bill and the dramatic challenge it wrought on the Minnesota child protection system, Chief Justice Blatz openly supported the new policy, noting that it constituted a much broader effort to amend and revise the manner in which the state protects children. The Chief Justice further remarked that not every family can be reunited, and that everyone involved should accept this reality and work smarter in dealing with this problem. (26) This uncompromising stance on the immediacy of placement and stability for children is reflected not only in her support of this bill but also in other programs, legislative measures, and judicial decisions.

  4. LEGISLATOR BLATZ--MINNESOTA HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

    Kathleen Blatz, then in her mid-twenties, entered the Minnesota House of Representatives in the late 1970s. (27) While she was in the legislature, women in that role became more accepted by the public and more comfortable with the structures and pressures of the legislature. (28)

    During her time in the Minnesota House of Representatives, Blatz left her mark not only as an active sponsor of bills, but also as a leader and champion of women, children, and family issues. Blatz's approach to ensuring protection of children came in various forms. In 1989, she sponsored legislation that placed illegal drug use during pregnancy within the definition of neglect and that required doctors to report such incidents and to test newborns of mothers thought to have a problem. (29) This legislation was highly controversial because, while its intent was to protect children, it also had the potential of stigmatizing mothers and of reducing parental rights. (30)

    In a less controversial area, Representative Blatz advocated reform measures increasing support for, and awareness of, children in abusive situations. In 1985, she introduced a bill, which passed the following year, that...

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