VIRGINIA — In his nearly 40 years of public service, James Florey became not only a fixture in the Iron Range legal community, but also a prominent voice in the state judiciary.
Florey cut his teeth as a St. Louis County prosecutor, spending 15 years handling felony offenses up to first-degree murder.
Later, as a district court judge of more than 18 years, he helped establish a treatment court on the Range and played a role in statewide initiatives as the region’s chief judge.
Since 2017, Florey
has served on the Minnesota Court of Appeals
— becoming just the third person from the northeastern corner of the state to sit on the error-correcting court that reviews cases throughout Minnesota.
But Florey, 65, is now looking forward to a quieter life as a private citizen. Before officially retiring from the bench last Friday, he sat down with the News Tribune to reflect on a four-decade career.
“It’s been an incredible ride for sure,” he said. “Judges have unique opportunities to make differences in people’s lives, and it has just been a real privilege to serve in that capacity.”
Colleagues praised Florey as a fair jurist with a gentle, accommodating approach in the courtroom and a willingness to consider new approaches to improve the justice system.
Judge Michelle Anderson, who appeared before Florey as a prosecutor and went on to fill his seat on the Virginia bench, said he “leaves a lasting impact on the Iron Range and the justice system as a whole.”
“In the courtroom, Judge Florey could see the crux of a case quicker than just about anybody I know,” Anderson said. “He maintained the highest standards for himself and others. He listened, treated everybody with dignity and respect, and he brought fair and intelligent consideration to the cases he decided. He administered justice with efficiency tempered by a steady watchfulness for unreasonable expectations or unkind behavior.”
Work challenging, but rewarding
Florey has spent most of his life on the Range, leaving to attend the University of Minnesota Duluth and William Mitchell College of Law.
He did a brief stint with Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota in Brainerd before St. Louis County Attorney Alan Mitchell hired him at the Virginia courthouse in 1983.
“It was rewarding,” Florey said of being a prosecutor. “It was challenging. It was heartbreaking at times. But I looked forward to going to work every day. It was such a challenge. … You get to see the best and the worst in people, and knowing you tried to make the right decisions to make the community safer and people’s lives better — it was very rewarding.”
Florey applied for the 6th Judicial District bench in late 1998, becoming the final judicial appointment in Gov. Arne Carlson’s tenure. In a small courthouse that includes only three judges, it can be years to decades between openings.
“I had a lot of experience trying cases, which is what judges do, so I thought I had a good skill set for it,” he said. “It was just a combination of having done a lot of the work and I wasn’t really looking to leave the county attorney’s office — I had enjoyed my time there — but with so many things in life, timing is everything.”
For years, Florey shared adjoining courtrooms and chambers with fellow Judge Gary Pagliaccetti.
“He was just a wonderful person to work alongside,” said Pagliaccetti, who earlier in his career tried cases against Florey as a public defender. “I’m kind of a worrywart and he’s a little calmer than I am. We kind of worked off each other that way. We spent a lot of time bouncing ideas off each other. One thing I would say about Jim is that if he saw a need, he’d go and work at seeing that that need was addressed.”
Changing the way justice is done
Pagliaccetti and others credited Florey with pressing for the
establishment of the Iron Range’s first specialty treatment court
in 2006. Initially providing high-intensity monitoring and services for drug offenders, it was expanded a few years later to include impaired driving clients.
Treatment courts had already been in use in the Twin Cities and Duluth, and it was clear to local officials that there needed to be similar opportunities to provide rehabilitation to defendants at the Virginia and Hibbing courthouses.
“That’s where I saw him do a lot of his best work,” said Pagliaccetti,
who retired in 2019.
“Just some of the insights that he would have with people in need of treatment and how to handle them — it really fit him, and he fit it well.”
Treatment courts were one of many changes over the years for Florey, who started his legal career in the era of typewriters and is finishing with a paperless court system that has largely operated with online hearings for the past two years.
“The court system is a system that’s based on tradition and it’s based on precedent,” Florey said. “It doesn’t change quickly. People are used to doing things a certain way. When we introduced the drug court, there were a lot of questions about it. Was it really going to serve public safety? It’s something we really had to work together to develop over time.”
Bonnie Norlander, who currently serves as the head of the Iron Range criminal division of the county attorney’s office, started her legal career as Florey’s law clerk. She said the judge “always treated me like an equal” and bestowed values of collegiality among the local bar.
“As a district court judge, Judge Florey was fair and respectful to everyone that appeared before him,” Norlander said. “When someone in the courtroom acted inappropriately or disrespectful, Judge Florey always responded calmly and with respect. He never embarrassed a party or attorney appearing before him.”
Longtime local attorney Sharon Chadwick said Florey also brought a sense of humor to the courthouse.
“While working, Judge Florey was all business,” she said, “but on a break or out of the office, I had the pleasure of seeing other facets of his personality. He always found ways of cutting the tension from the high stakes, high emotion work of the court. He loved to laugh. The camel narrated hump-day TV commercial kept him amused for at least a week. He helped his co-workers smile and restore their energy while setting an example of the highest standards for public service.”
Leadership at the state level
Over the years, Florey assumed a number of leadership roles in the region and state.
He was the 6th District’s chief judge from 2016-12, leading the four-county region’s judiciary through significant budgetary challenges and operational changes, while serving as vice chair of the Minnesota Judicial Council, the policy-making body for the state courts.
Florey was one of five judges responsible for redrawing the state’s legislative and congressional districts following the 2010 census, and served on a statewide panel tasked with implementing technological systems.
He was one of three finalists recommended to Gov. Mark Dayton for a seat on the Minnesota Supreme Court before ultimately receiving the Court of Appeals appointment, succeeding Judge Larry Stauber as the 8th Congressional District representative on the intermediate court.
For the past five years, Florey has been one of 19 judges responsible for hearing the roughly 2,000 appeals filed annually from trial courts, state agencies and local governments. It’s a different job — judges sit in panels of three to review lengthy written records, hear oral arguments and deliberate on whether there are any errors that need to be remedied in each case.
“On the appellate level, we don’t have the same caseload that district courts are dealing with,” he said. “We have a chance to look at cases in more detail and depth, and having an ability to bring three different judicial perspectives to a case I think really improves the quality of our decisions.”
For about three years, Florey would generally spend four days a week working in St. Paul before returning to his home near Eveleth. But the pandemic has forced appeals court arguments online since March 2020 — a change that came so abruptly that Florey said he had to dig into a closet and find his son’s old graduation gown to use as a judicial robe for early Zoom sessions.
“There were many who thought for many years that the court was just too complicated to go to a virtual system,” he said. “I still think in-person appearances are important, but I think there are some things we’ve learned we can do remotely that are more user-friendly for our constituents, the people using the court and the attorneys that are representing people.”
With Florey’s two sons now out of college — one holding his old job as a prosecutor in Virginia — he said it was time to join his wife in retirement, though he’ll continue to fill in on appeals court panels as a senior judge.
“I love working, and I’ve enjoyed my job all these years,” he said. “It’s going to be an adjustment, but at the same time not having six new cases and a pile of briefs every week is going to be really nice.”
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