St. Paul, Minn. — Kathleen Blatz is a former legislator and district court judge who was appointed to the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1996. Two years later, she became the first woman to lead the state's highest court. Blatz says she still loves the job, but decided it was time for a change.
"Eight years, I think, is a really good amount of public service in one position as chief justice, and I've been doing public service now for over half my life, and I think it's time to try to be a private citizen," she said.
Blatz says she doesn't have another job lined up, and has no plans to run for office again. She recently married Republican businessman Wheelock Whitney, and says she plans to spend more time with him and her three teenage sons. Blatz also wants to continue to work on issues that affect abused and neglected children, one of her top priorities since her time as a legislator.
"Kids are getting lost in the system," she says. "We can do better, and we must do better for kids. And so when I became chief justice, you know what? I ran out of excuses. If I could not help bring about some change, who could?"
Under Blatz's leadership, Minnesota overhauled its child protection system. She spearheaded the Children's Justice Initiative, designed to get abused and neglected kids out of foster care faster.
Last week, Blatz co-chaired a national child protection summit in Bloomington. Blatz' colleague, Justice Paul Anderson, says she's leaving the court "at the top of her game." He says Blatz will also be remembered for her advocacy for court funding.
"As a former legislator, she has had good relations with the Legislature, also with the governor. And so in this time of retrenchment and tight budgets, she has done a good job of preserving the budget for the court so we can do our job well," Anderson said.
Anderson says he will miss Blatz's intellect on the court. Former Gov. Arne Carlson says that's one of the many reasons he appointed her.
"She works very well with people, she knows how to build up a collegial environment, she knows how to get people to work towards some common coals, she's very persuasive, she's very intelligent, she's well prepared. She just has the whole package," Carlson said.
Carlson says he's urged Blatz to run for the U.S. Senate, but Blatz says she's not interested. Former Supreme Court justice Jim Gilbert, who was on the bench with Blatz for seven years, says he thinks she now has a great opportunity to shape issues she cares about.
"She could almost have more power as a former chief justice out there on some of these issues, because she's not as constrained, being a former justice as you are when you're holding the reins of power. And she will be listened to, she will be credible when she goes and talks to the Legislature and special interest groups, and she knows where the issues are," Gilbert said.
Gilbert says recent chief justices have served fewer than 10 years, because of the demands of the job. He says he routinely worked 60 hour weeks on the bench, and he says being a Supreme Court justice can be lonely, because justices must often isolate themselves to focus on their work. Blatz, 51, says she looks forward to a more relaxed pace with her family.
"I'm not the most relaxed person you've ever met," she said. "We do fun things, but we start at 8 and we end at 9:30. I've got to go and look at colleges with one of my boys, and I want to do it in a way that is just relaxed. And I won't be yelling the whole time, 'get in the car, we gotta go to another place.' Just like a normal mom, just want to have some more quality time."
Blatz will officially retire on January 10. Gov. Pawlenty will now have the opportunity to make his second appointment to the seven-member Supreme Court. He appointed former Appeals Court judge Barry Anderson a year ago. Pawlenty said in a statement that Blatz has been a strong advocate for improvement and accountability in the justice system, and will be missed.