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The Supreme Court chamber in the Minnesota Capitol. (File photo)

Charging decision backlog results in suspension of ex-city attorney

A former city attorney has been suspended from the practice of law. While the original recommendation was a public reprimand, the Minnesota Supreme Court determined that suspension was the appropriate punishment for negligence by a government attorney of multiple charging decisions.

Elizabeth Bloomquist entered the legal practice in Minnesota nearly 40 years ago. For the majority of her career, 30 years, Bloomquist served as Fairmont’s city attorney. She was in that position from 1989 until 2019. The city parted ways with Bloomquist in April 2019, after deciding to open bidding for contracted legal services instead of retaining in-house counsel. In a heavily divided, closed session, the City Council ultimately voted to end its agreement with Bloomquist.

Upon her termination, the city became aware that several police reports had not been resolved. In total, there were 135 unresolved police reports. Fifty-one of those cases were time-barred. Twenty-six of those could have been charged out or further investigated. Twenty-seven of the time-barred cases were domestic assault cases.

“As the Director [of the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility] acknowledged in an informal memorandum she provided with the parties’ stipulation, this case is one of first impression: we have not addressed a situation in which a government attorney neglected a large number of charging decisions in this manner,” the court noted.

The OLPR and Bloomquist recommended that the appropriate discipline for the neglect of those cases was a public reprimand. One of the reasons was that Bloomquist was in an untenable position. Bloomquist once had a full-time legal assistant. In 2012, however, the assistant began taking on other duties after reassignment. Subsequently, Bloomquist only received 20% of her assistant’s time. There were no other staff resources to help with her caseload. This affected Bloomquist’s ability to process criminal cases within the city’s jurisdiction.

Bloomquist did notify the city that this staff reduction posed an issue for her.

“We recognize that attorneys employed by the government may have limited control over their caseloads and support staff, which can lead to unique challenges in discharging their professional obligations,” the court wrote.

However, the court was unpersuaded. Bloomquist did not provide information about what steps she took to notify the city that the lack of resources was affecting her ability to make charging decisions. Additionally, Bloomquist admitted that she should have been more proactive about obtaining additional resources.

In recommending a public reprimand, the OLPR director noted that she was unable to find any individuals who were actually harmed by Bloomquist’s neglect of the cases assigned to her. Minnesota law requires a prosecutor to notify the victim that they have declined prosecution or have dismissed the criminal charges against the defendant. However, prosecutors have discretion to decline to prosecute. If Bloomquist declined to prosecute, then there would have been no violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct.

“She did not exercise her discretion,” the court avowed. “Inaction is not a decision.”

Additionally, the court disagreed that no one was harmed, stating that it was unknown whether the domestic assault victims were harmed by Bloomquist’s inaction.

Nor did the court agree that Bloomquist’s inaction would not harm the public’s perception of the legal system.

“Our system entrusts prosecutors with broad and virtually unreviewable discretion, based on the assumption that they will exercise it in the public interest,” the court wrote. “Even if it were established that the public lacks an understanding of the breadth of a prosecutor’s discretion — a proposition that we doubt — that would only reinforce the importance of prosecutors exercising that discretion faithfully,” the court maintained.

The court noted that public reprimand is the appropriate discipline for significant lack of diligence relating to a small number of clients. However, it disagreed with the OLPR’s recommendation, citing the nature of the misconduct and cumulative weight of the disciplinary violations.

Bloomquist was suspended from the practice of law for a minimum of 30 days. She is not currently practicing law and may not return to legal practice.

The city of Fairmont declined to comment on the suspension.

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