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Minnesota Gets a New Benchmark


Kathleen Blatz laughs as she recounts a story she heard recently about women and the US Supreme Court.

"It was a case heard 25 years ago on sexual discrimination," Judge Blatz says, smiling broadly. "Chief Justice Warren Burger was maintaining, 'But women do make the best typists,' and another judge was fretting, 'If men are stewardesses - what are we to call them?' "

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With a final chuckle, Blatz leans back in her chair, adding, "They sure wouldn't ask those questions today - not in that court." Not in Blatz's either.

As the newly appointed chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, Blatz is the first in Minnesota judicial history, and only the 11th woman nationwide, to hold such a position.

But as more women take their place beside - and above - men in "courts of last resort," a new dynamic is emerging. Often focused on different issues from those of their male counterparts, women are subtly changing courthouse culture and the tenor of American jurisprudence. While gender alone doesn't guarantee a different approach to the law, experts say women have often brought greater sensitivity in dealing with family, sexual abuse, and other issues.

"It's been said that we do not feminize the bench, we humanize it," says California Superior Court Judge Barbara Zuniga, president of the National Association of Women Judges. "We do not seem to be as ego-involved as men judges in the courtroom, which is already adversarial enough."

Though not everyone would agree with that statement, the different styles that women do bring, however subtle, are coming to more benches across the United States. Indeed, when the National Association of Women Judges began in 1979, it had only 100 members. Now membership stands at 1,300.

While many still believe the bench is still too much of a male enclave, statistics show that women have made important strides. According to the National Center for State Courts, there are 77 women seated as supreme court justices - 11 of them as chief justices. That's almost double the numbers from the center's 1994 survey, which found only 35 women holding those positions.

Minnesota is hardly a newcomer to the area of female supreme court justices. Minnesota appointed its first, Rosalie Wahl, in 1977. At one point in the early 1990s, the majority of the justices on Minnesota's Supreme Court were women.

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So when Blatz was named chief justice, it should have been no surprise. But to the outgoing mother of three preteen sons, it was. "I never would have applied for it because I'd only been a trial court judge for three years," she says.

Blatz is certainly a far cry from the stereotypical stone-faced, solemnly robed jurist usually found in the rarified air of state supreme courts. In fact, she greeted a recent visitor to her chambers with an apologetic, "Sorry, I've been munching popcorn," to explain the aroma. Blatz's love of food and baking have been much discussed by the Minnesota media, which led her to issue a disclaimer: "Please, I'm not Martha Stewart. When '101 Dalmatians' came out, my sons were closing in on a complete McDonald's cup collection."

Image aside, though, Blatz had interests and opinions that convinced Gov. Arne Carlson that she was the ideal candidate. Governor Carlson picked Blatz because he wanted someone "to pay closer attention to emerging issues such as youth and children's issues." And Blatz's involvement with families and children is substantial.

Prior to becoming a trial judge in 1994, Blatz worked as a public prosecutor and a private attorney. She also served 15 years in the Minnesota Legislature, where she drafted a law requiring doctors to report drug-using pregnant women (the so-called "Cocaine Baby" law) and helped to create the Children's Trust Fund, which funds child abuse prevention programs.

So when Blatz was appointed to the state's highest court last January, it wasn't surprising that her first official act involved children and families. In June, the Minnesota Supreme Court will initiate a three-year pilot project that will open up child-protection hearings to the public in selected courtrooms around the state. Child abuse and neglect matters traditionally have been considered a very private process and, therefore, not a matter for public scrutiny not only in Minnesota, but throughout the country. As a result, Blatz's decision is not without controversy.

Proponents say it will bring new light on the problems suffered by children and offer more solutions to troubled families. Critics say exposing family problems in public will cause even more pain to those involved. Blatz calls it a "commitment to improving the way children are treated in the state-court system," adding, "I have never made a connection between having a closed court and justice."

Blatz says other states have expressed an interest in starting similar programs, among them, Alaska, Florida and Michigan. And although she acknowledges some judges' reluctance to try the experiment, she says "there is support to try something new to see if it works."

The new chief justice speaks straightforwardly about her longtime support of children's issues. "When I first started in the Legislature, it was typical for women to bring forth issues related to children and family issues. Today, I don't think that's true at all. Some of the biggest champions ... these days are male."

"I'm sensitive that these topics are still considered to be 'women's issues,' " she adds. "What bothers me more is the flip side: They are such important issues, why wouldn't men want to rally around them?"

Blatz's predecessor, A.M. "Sandy" Keith, was also a champion of family and children's issues. He was the first to take note of a Minnesota study showing a dramatic rise in family law-related cases. Today, justices spend 80 percent of their time on family, criminal and juvenile matters, he told a local legal journal.

And as the number of family law-related cases have increased, many observers have noted how women approach them. "I've definitely noticed that female judges share a great concern for children and family issues as much or more than their male counterparts," says George Stern, an Atlanta-based family lawyer and the president-elect of the American Association of Matrimonial Lawyers. "I think they have a little more compassion and take more interest in individual cases."

Blatz sees no problem with caring deeply about family and children's issues and remaining a fair and impartial justice. "There's that thinking out there that female judges only care about kids. I'm not embarrassed about that," she says. "These kids end up being our criminals in our prisons. Everyone thinks its cool to do murder cases. I want us to do a better job on child protection at the front end."


* Born July 22, 1954 in Bloomington, Minn.

* Married to Thomas Berkelman, a Washington-based lobbyist for AT&T. The couple has three sons: Hunter, 11; Carter, 9; and Max, 5.

* Received her bachelor's degree from the University of Notre Dame, then received a master's degree in social work and a law degree from University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

* Appointed to the state supreme court in 1996. Sworn in as chief justice in January, 1998.

* Loves to bake and is renowned for her peach cobbler.

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