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Blackwell confirmed by Senate, heads to bench on federal court in Minneapolis

Blackwell deviated from his career as litigator of civil cases when he agreed to prosecute the Derek Chauvin case – for free.

Jerry Blackwell shown speaking during the trial of Derek Chauvin in April 2021.
Jerry Blackwell shown speaking during the trial of Derek Chauvin in April 2021.
Pool via REUTERS

WASHINGTON – The Senate late Wednesday voted to confirm Jerry Blackwell, the attorney who was tapped to prosecute the Derek Chauvin case, as Minnesota’s newest federal judge.

Blackwell, 60, decided to quit a 35-year career as a successful corporate lawyer to serve a lifetime appointment on the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, which hears all federal cases in the state. The bipartisan vote to confirm Blackwell was 51-43, with all Democrats present and five Republican senators — Roy Blunt of Missouri, Sue Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Charles Grassley of Iowa and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voting for his confirmation.

“Jerry Blackwell is one of the most widely respected and accomplished members of the Minnesota legal community,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar after the confirmation vote.  “As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I fought to advance his nomination through the Senate, and I thank my colleagues on both sides of the aisle for their support of this outstanding nominee.”

Judge Michael Davis, who serves on the U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, said Blackwell has been arguing cases before him since the attorney began practicing law in the Twin Cities in 1987.

“He’s one of the best attorneys who has ever appeared before me,” Davis said. “He’s going to make a great judge. He’s extremely intelligent and he knows the law.”

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Blackwell has represented Fortune 500 companies, including 3M, Exxon-Mobil, Cargill and General Mills, sometimes defending large companies from individuals who said they had done them harm.

But he’s not the ruthless, arrogant, avaricious corporate lawyer that’s found in central casting. Friends, colleagues and even adversaries portrayed Blackwell as someone who promoted the careers of Black law students in Minnesota, was a consummate professional in court and was often tapped to handle sensitive settlement negotiations.

“Jerry is not one of these lawyers who took a case because he’s pugnacious and just wants to fight,” said Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, a friend of Blackwell’s for decades. “He’ll treat the litigants well and he will be an extraordinary judge.”

Blackwell deviates from the stereotype of cutthroat corporate litigator in other ways.

He’s an avid beekeeper who in 2017 established a rural retreat in Jordan, Minn., called Peacehaven Farm that identifies itself as “a sacred setting with the spirit is nurtured and outdoor education reigns.” All are welcome to the farm, which teaches beekeeping, nurturing medicinal native plants, Tai Chi as well as how to succeed in business.

Blackwell also deviated from his career as litigator of civil cases last year when he agreed to prosecute the Derek Chauvin case – for free. Chauvin is the Minneapolis Police officer who murdered George Floyd. Blackwell had never argued a criminal case before.

Ellison said he eagerly accepted Blackwell’s offer to help in the case against Chauvin. “He said ‘I’m here, let me know what I can do.’” Ellison said. “In the beginning, it wasn’t clear what role he was going to play.”

Nor was it clear what Blackwell, a lawyer who commanded very high fees, would charge the state.

“I said ‘what are you going to charge me Jerry?’ He said ‘nothing.’ That was my favorite price,” Ellison said.

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Ellison said Blackwell helped strategize the case, then as “the best trial lawyer in Minnesota” he argued the case as well, twisting the defense’s argument and closing the three-week, high profile case.

He told the jury, “Having seen all the evidence and having heard on the evidence, you know the truth, and the truth of the matter is that the reason George Floyd is dead is because Mr. Chauvin’s heart was too small.”

At the June hearing on his nomination before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chairman Richard Durbin said Blackwell’s work in the Chauvin case “was an awesome responsibility and I couldn’t have asked for a better administration of justice in that courtroom.” Chauvin was sentenced to more than 20 years in prison.

‘A judge who’s been in the trenches’

Born in Mooresville, N.C., Blackwell said he grew up in a house with no running water and an outhouse in the back. He was the first in his family to attend college, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and also received his law degree from that school. After working as a law clerk in several North Carolina law firms, Blackwell moved to Minnesota.

He is a founding partner of Blackwell Burke, the nation’s second-largest Black-owned law firm, where he has worked since 2006. He was also a partner at several other law firms and is the founder of the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers and the Twin Cities Committee on Minority Lawyers in Large Law Firms.

Ellison said he met Blackwell in 1987, when the Blackwell worked as an associate for the Robins Kaplan Miller firm and the attorney general was a law student. Ellison said Blackwell came to University of Minnesota Law School and mentored him and other law students.

“He was one of those folks that knew the challenges of being a Black lawyer in a state with a very small Black population at the time,” Ellison said.

At a “Discussion on Systemic Racism,”  held at a church in Raleigh, North Carolina about a year ago, Blackwell said he accepted a job at the Robins Kaplan Miller law firm because at the time there were so few “lawyers of color” in the ranks of corporate law firms.

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“I ended up kind of in this universe so lawyers of color … could do this work,” he said.

He said he expected to live in Minnesota for no more than two years. But he not only survived the corporate law world – he thrived in it. At his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing, his family bragged to Klobuchar that Blackwell has never lost a case.

Several years ago, Ellison encouraged Blackwell to seek a posthumous pardon for Max Mason, a Black circus worker who was wrongly convicted of rape in 1920, months after three of his colleagues were lynched – hung from a lamp post in Duluth – as a result of the false accusations. Blackwell succeeded in winning Mason’s exoneration in 2020, the first posthumous pardon issued in the state.

While Blackwell is devoted to the law, Ellison said “if you really want to get Jerry Blackwell going, bring up bee keeping.”

Even those who battled Blackwell in court predict he will make a good judge.

In 2018, Blackwell represented ExxonMobil in a case brought by a worker who said he was exposed to asbestos fibers while performing abatement work. The trial returned a mixed verdict, finding no liability for ExxonMobil, but holding two of its co-defendants liable.

Bob Clifford’s Chicago-based law firm represented the worker in the case. He said corporations “are entitled to quality representation” and Blackwell provided it.

“He’s a star, he’s the real deal,” said Clifford, who called Blackwell “a gentleman, consummate professional and humble and generous.”

“The community is going to benefit greatly by having a judge who has been in the trenches,” Clifford said.

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A few months after the end of the Chauvin trial, Blackwell told Klobuchar, D-Minn., he was interested in an opening on the bench of the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota. Klobuchar and Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., agreed he would make a good candidate for the job and shepherded his candidacy through the U.S. Senate.

“Jerry Blackwell’s confirmation is an exciting event for Minnesota,” Smith said after Blackwell’s confirmation. “His dedication to equal justice and distinguished record as an attorney and leader in Minnesota’s legal community make him exceptionally well-qualified for this position, and I congratulate him on his confirmation.”

Clifford said he was not surprised that Blackwell would want to end his legal career in a judge’s robe.

“What I’m surprised is that he’s given up a lot to become a judge,” Clifford said, in reference to Blackwell’s impending drop in income.

According to his financial disclosure form, Blackwell made nearly $860,000 in his role as CEO of his law firm in 2021.  In 2022, the annual salary for federal district court judges is $223,400.

But Davis, who will sit on the bench with Blackwell in Minneapolis and considers the attorney a “professional friend,” said many give up high-paying jobs to become judges.

“It’s a very prestigious and important position,” he said.

President Joe Biden must sign off on the confirmation. Blackwell is expected to be sworn in at the district court in Minneapolis before the end of the year.