Only the day before, Joe Bluth had spent five hours in a small room on the second floor of the Blue Earth County Justice Center, trying to resolve a child custody case. The Judge in the case had recommended the parties for E-N-E – an “early neutral evaluation” as it’s called, to try to avoid a protracted trial with its large costs, and possibly further emotional damage to family members involved.
Thus the quarreling couple sat down with their attorneys and the E-N-E team – a psychologist, a social worker, a retired judge, and attorney Bluth as a qualified neutral party - all trying to massage an agreement out of court that could be acceptable and beneficial to all. For his services, the County paid Bluth a flat $300 fee – a pretty good wage for most folks, but a fraction of what he once commanded as one of this area’s best-paid trial lawyers.
There was a time when Bluth was not a believer in third party mediation. As a hard-driving litigator, he thought the process a bit “polly-anna-ish”. “I love trials – that’s the juice!” he still said. “Standing in front of a jury is the most exciting thing you can do.” Still, early on, though he may not have recognized it then, he was learning the value of working things out without being adversarial.
Born in East St. Paul, the now-64-year-old Bluth ended up serving one-and-a-half tours in Vietnam. As a paratrooper, he became embedded with a small group working with Vietnamese civilians with whom he had to negotiate. And then there was the time early in his law career, after he graduated from Hamline, when he found himself dealing with two Amish farmers in Long Prairie. One wanted to sue the other because he had let his mare, who was in heat, wander, tempting the other’s stallion to jump a fence. In the heat of equine passion on a county road, the two horses were hit by a car – injured, but not killed. Bluth told the farmer, it wasn’t a case fit for court, and a trial would cost more than he could ever get out of it. So they settled. That might have been his first actual mediation, although he didn’t necessarily call it that. “When I was in law school [in the’70’s] it wasn’t really part of the discussion. Now most law schools offer mediation as a core concentration. For family law, I think it works.”