Every time James Backstrom signs his name in ’78 he has to include his middle initial so he can remember his father. Clifford Backstrom was a firefighter for more than three decades, giving his son a duty to serve the public.
In February, Clifford Backstrom’s son will retire shortly after his 68th birthday after more than three decades serving as the longest serving resident of the post in Dakota County, Minnesota. He will step down before the end of his elected term of office because of health problems – namely, chronic lung infections that have lasted for several years.
“I feel a bit limited,” said Backstrom, in an interview. “This is an important job that demands someone in better health than me.”
Backstrom has a pitch for current and future law students: Public Sector Work.
“Your ability to make an impact in people’s lives will not be greater in any legal career you choose,” he said. “You have a real chance to make positive changes to people’s lives – whether as a prosecutor, defense attorney, or any number of jobs to ensure that people in this society are treated fairly.
“I promise you won’t regret it.”
Backstrom started with William Mitchell when it was a night school with a four-year JD program for part-time students that was located near the University of St. Thomas campus. He was also one of the first students to take courses on today’s campus.
During his third year, he was hired as a clerk in the Dakota District Law Office – and the following year John Sonsteng hired him as assistant district attorney. Sonsteng was a district attorney at the time but would soon be leaving to become a professor with William Mitchell, then with Mitchell Hamline (where he still teaches).
Backstrom was appointed district attorney in 1987 to fill a vacancy, and then won eight elections for the post. “I would never have been a district attorney without John [Sonsteng] seize the chance to hire a young, inexperienced but energetic lawyer, ”he said.
Backstrom points to a few highlights and achievements during his tenure – from meeting the White House with President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno in the 1990s, to juvenile delinquency, to creating several distraction programs for low-level criminals to get them out of jail or out to keep out of juvenile detention. There were also the drug treatment courts that he created for people with chemical addictions who had committed crimes. “You need support in these times and that’s what we do with treatment dishes,” Backstrom said. “We’re trying to give them the opportunity to tackle the underlying addiction rather than being locked up for several years, which doesn’t help anyone.”
There is a case for Backstrom that “will haunt me until I die”. He led the prosecution of Robert Guevara, who was charged in 1992 with the rape and murder of a five-year-old girl named Corrine Erstad. The girl’s body was never found, but it was the early days of using DNA evidence to link suspects to crime. Backstrom had such evidence, but Guevara was acquitted, Backstrom believes, in part because of limitations in portraying the scientific importance of DNA during the trials. Backstrom says he is grateful that the Guevara case ultimately resulted in those boundaries being lifted. Since then he has had a photo of Erstad in his office.
Backstrom was arguing a case in the US Supreme Court in 1998 – quite a thrill, he said, especially given the fact that he had won the case. He advocated the state of Minnesota on a case related to proper police searches and seizures. Brad Colbert, then a public defender who now teaches at Mitchell Hamline, argued for those questioned.
“I think it’s fair to say we were a little nervous,” remarked Colbert. “Maybe more than a little.
“Jim did a great job in the argument, although I must admit that I was a little disappointed that he didn’t break his Elvis impersonation in court.”
During his 20th high school meetup, Backstrom recalls being taken on stage to sing an Elvis song (he had been in the choir in high school and was voted the shyest boy in his class). To his surprise, he loved it and found more ways to sing (Elvis favorite song: “Suspicious Minds”). His wife bought him his own Elvis costume for his 50th birthday.
Backstrom sings mostly to senior assisted dormitories and hopes to do more of this in retirement.
For now, however, he will be focusing on his own health and thinking about a long career that began as a student with William Mitchell. “I had the great privilege of holding this post for as long as possible,” he said. “The criminal justice system has to keep improving, and I am honored to have had many opportunities to try just that.”
Read Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, and KARE 11 coverage of Backstrom’s resignation announcement.