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Wolf reprimanded, cites mental condition as reason for behavior

The Minnesota Board of Judicial Standards has imposed a public reprimand on District County Judge Dale A. Wolf as a result of his actions in the Donald Blom murder case.

Blom was charged with the kidnapping and murder of Katie Poirier. Wolf was removed from the high profile case in October 1999.

The proceedings were being held in Carlton County when Sixth District Chief Judge John T. Oswald granted a motion to disqualify Wolf from the case. Virginia-based District Judge Gary Pagliaccetti took over. At the time, a media frenzy had engulfed the small courthouse, and Wolf's comments and at least one outburst on the bench were reported.

The board concluded that Wolf acted improperly in three areas. It found that he failed to maintain an impartial demeanor, made undignified and discourteous public references to lawyers serving as public defenders and in other capacities and publicly commented on the pending court proceedings.

The actions were contrary to the Minnesota Code of Judicial Conduct.

The board determined that Wolf's judicial conduct in the Blom case was "egregious and unacceptable."

Usually, such judicial misconduct would result in more severe discipline than the board imposed. However, in this case, reduced discipline was based on the fact that Wolf suffers from an illness known as "bipolar disorder."

Bipolar disorder, which used to be called manic-depressive psychosis, is a mental illness characterized by wide mood swings from euphoria to depression, with four identified variations.

Dr. Clyde Olson, a physician and board certified in psychiatry with St. Mary's/Duluth Clinic, said bipolar disorder is a chronic mental illness.

"People function well with it," he said. "It is manageable and very treatable."

He compared it to people suffering from high blood pressure, who can control the condition as long as they take their medication.

The condition is found in about 1.5 percent of the population. It commonly shows up in young adults, though it can surface later. Substance abuse or a family history of mental illness can be causal factors.

He said the condition can be considered a disability, but in cases that are properly managed, it wouldn't even be apparent to co-workers. The medications for treatment do not impair judgment but must be monitored by a physician.

With its reprimand, the board set the following discipline which Wolf has agreed to:

1. He is currently undergoing treatment for bipolar illness and will continue treatment on an ongoing basis.

2. In a public written statement approved by the board, Wolf will apologize to the people of the Sixth Judicial District for his improper behavior. The statement will be submitted to the board and distributed to the media.

3. In individual letters approved by the board, Wolf will apologize to each attorney about whom he made inappropriate remarks. This includes John Stuart, Fred Friedman, Rodney Brodin, Joanna Piper-Maurer, Steve Meshbesher and Scott Swanson.

4. Wolf will refrain from retaliating against any person cooperating with the board's investigation.

5. The final resolution of this matter will be delayed until expert medical evaluation of Wolf's illness is complete and medical confirmation is given that his illness is no longer acute and is currently satisfactorily managed.

6. The board will receive quarterly updates on Wolf's condition and prognosis for the next year.

7. All conditions required of Wolf by the Minnesota Supreme Court shall be considered requirements of the board.

The board is an independent state agency that receives and acts upon complaints about Minnesota judges for judicial misconduct or wrongdoing. The 10 members are appointed by the governor.

In December 2000, the State Supreme Court OK'd Wolf's return to the bench. The judge was to be handling civil cases at the St. Louis County Courthouse on a part-time basis.

On Jan. 22, Wolf submitted a letter to the Cloquet Pine Knot explaining what happened in the fall of 1999 and his current condition.

"My medication has been successful, and I have felt very well for the past 13 months," he wrote. "However, I was not able to resume my judicial duties until the Supreme Court also felt it was appropriate."

He credited the medication, along with a supportive family and friends, for his recovery.

In response to the board's action, Chief Public Defender Friedman wrote: "I expect the courts of Minnesota to treat our clients who have bipolar disorders and who have no influence, no money and no title, with the same amount of leniency and compassion as was given to their brother, Judge Wolf."