Star Tribune

By Stephen Montemayor

The U.S. Senate on Wednesday confirmed President Joe Biden's nomination of Minneapolis attorney Jerry Blackwell to join the federal bench in Minnesota.

Blackwell cleared the Senate on a 51-43 vote, becoming the second federal jurist appointed in Minnesota under the Biden administration. He gained national attention last year for helping prosecute ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd.

In an interview Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., called Blackwell "one of the most widely respected and accomplished members of our legal community."

"This is someone who is about as experienced as they get for the federal bench," said Klobuchar.

In a statement Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., called Blackwell's confirmation "an exciting event for Minnesota."

"His dedication to equal justice and distinguished record as a leader in Minnesota's legal community make him exceptionally well-qualified to serve as U.S. District Court Judge for the District of Minnesota," Smith said.

Blackwell has 35 years of trial experience. During that time, Klobuchar said, he never lost a case. His legal career includes litigating civil cases for Fortune 500 companies such as 3M, General Mills and Walmart in federal and state courts across 47 states and abroad.

"Jerry Blackwell is one of the most experienced and respected trial lawyers in Minnesota," Chief U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz said in a statement. "It is difficult to imagine a lawyer who is better qualified to serve as a United States District Judge."

Schiltz noted that when Blackwell is sworn in he will become the third Black jurist to serve on the federal court in Minnesota, following Judges Michael J. Davis and Wilhelmina M. Wright.

After starting his legal career at a high-profile law firm in Minneapolis, Blackwell later founded Blackwell Burke PA in 2006, which Klobuchar said grew into one of the biggest Black-owned law firms in Minnesota and nationally.

In 2020, Blackwell helped secure Minnesota's first posthumous pardon in the case of Max Mason, a Black man wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman in 1920. A year later, Blackwell played a key role in the state's successful prosecution of Chauvin, turning heads with his opening statement, witness questioning and closing arguments.

Before the jury would deliberate and render an eventual guilty verdict, Blackwell delivered a memorable rebuttal to defense arguments that Floyd died in part because of an enlarged heart.

"The truth of the matter is that the reason George Floyd is dead is because Mr. Chauvin's heart was too small," Blackwell said.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office prosecuted Chauvin, said in a statement after Blackwell's confirmation that he could "think of no one more deserving of the honor of serving as a federal judge."

"Jerry has the depth of life experience, legal knowledge and expertise, and temperament that ensure he will deliver justice with fairness and compassion for all," Ellison said. "He will make an outstanding judge and will do Minnesota proud."

Blackwell grew up in North Carolina and was the first of six children in his family to attend college. He graduated from law school at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill before moving to Minnesota to work at Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi — becoming a partner at the firm at 31.

Blackwell also co-founded the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers in 1995.

"Today is a momentous day for the legal community with the confirmation of the Honorable Jerry Blackwell to the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota," said Dana Mitchell, the association's president. "The Honorable Jerry Blackwell is a visionary, trailblazer, distinguished attorney, and founding member of the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers. For decades, Minnesota judges, lawyers and law students have admired Mr. Blackwell for his legal acumen and community leadership."

Blackwell becomes the second federal district court judge successfully appointed by the Biden administration, following Katherine Menendez's appointment to the bench last year. Biden nominated Blackwell to fill a vacancy created earlier this year when Judge Susan Richard Nelson assumed senior status.

Before casting her vote in favor of Blackwell's nomination Wednesday, Klobuchar told the Star Tribune that she was struck by his decision to seek the federal bench at a time in which his recent courtroom success paved the way for a seemingly limitless array of legal career options on a national level.

"While being a federal judge is an amazing occupation, Jerry was at a moment in time where he could've done a lot of things nationally," Klobuchar said. "But he chose to serve our state of Minnesota as a federal judge."