Chatfield attorney Matt Opat has sold his practice in Chatfield since he has been named Fillmore County's Third Judicial District judge, following the retirement of Judge Robert Benson.  GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS
Chatfield attorney Matt Opat has sold his practice in Chatfield since he has been named Fillmore County's Third Judicial District judge, following the retirement of Judge Robert Benson. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS
Matt Opat, a longtime Chatfield attorney, has been benched.

"By law, I can't do both," said Opat, who recently sold his law practice on Third Street to Scott Springer and Jennifer Gumbel, of Springer & Gumbel of Preston, as he advances his career to take a seat at Fillmore County's Third Judicial District bench. He will be replacing the retiring Honorable Judge Robert Benson, who officially retired March 31 but agreed to remain until a new judge was appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton.

"This is a retirement, so it's filled by selection - judges are otherwise elected, and I'll have to run for election in the 2014 election - but I got a call from the judicial selection committee telling me that they had named me 'judge designate' on May 2." He continued, "It's up to me to decide when I want to take office, but they obviously want me to take office sooner than later since there's a shortage of judges in the Third Judicial District. June 28 is my first official day on the job - there'll be an investiture ceremony, or my swearing in, on that day at Potter Auditorium."

"After practicing law for 35 years, I've enjoyed practicing, but I was looking for another challenge, and this is a little bit of a different perspective on practicing law," he said. "The hard part is leaving my clients behind, having been involved with them on a day-to-day basis."

Opat graduated from law school at Hamline University of Law in 1977. He also married his wife, Therese, in August of 1977. Since she worked in Rochester at Mayo Clinic, that became the center of where he looked for work.

"One day, I drove to Chatfield and stopped at a law office that belonged to Marvin Ohlrogg, who had taken it over after World War II," Opat said. "He was looking for someone to come and eventually take over his practice so he could retire. His wife, Mary, was his secretary, and between Marvin and Mary and I, it was discussed, so I joined his practice Nov. 1, 1977."

Part of Opat's career has also been spent as assistant Fillmore County attorney for 16 years and he served as county attorney for six years.

Springer & Gumbel, P.A., which presently has an office in Preston, agreed to take over his law firm and maintain this practice full time.

"I think they might be bringing in another person to join their firm as well," he added.

Opat has dealt primarily with real estate, probate, wills and general business law. "It's been a practice I've enjoyed. I've obviously met a lot of clients who became my friends, and I got to be with them during the good times and the bad times. It's my job to help people through those times, and I appreciate everyone's business over the past 35 years."

He said, "I'm going to miss my clients and being around town. Being here gave me the opportunity to be involved in organizations, like the Lions, the Rotary Club, numerous other organizations that have been here, and I've also had a part in Western Days and the Chatfield Center for the Arts. I've had an active schedule of activities. I'll still be around town, but I'll be driving to Preston to work again."

His secretary, Carolyn Bicknese, will remain with the practice as a "familiar face," though the name on the door will be "Springer & Gumbel, P.A."

He noted that in choosing to pursue a judicial position, he would be departing from a place in which he's been very comfortable, and that he did not want to leave until he was certain that his clients had someone to answer their legal questions.

"I wanted to make sure my clients are covered, that there would be an office in Chatfield - I feel that it's important to have a resident attorney in town, and it's also good to be passing it on to a younger generation who will be here a long time," Opat stated.

He feels prepared to take on the judicial bench because he has worked as a private attorney long enough to have encountered various kinds of court cases.

"The advantages of coming from a private practice are that I handled numerous types of cases that a judge has to listen to, and I have been involved with all types of cases, so I've got legal experience that's different than what a public defender or a county attorney might or wouldn't have...the wide experience that a judge encounters," he added.

Opat anticipates taking on the challenges of impartiality that being a judge requires.

"Being on the bench is still about serving people, and I continue to look forward to doing that as I've done in my private practice," Opat continued. "The new challenge, obviously, is making decisions, because having been in court making arguments to the judge, I'm now going to be on the receiving end and hear arguments. To do that, I have to be impartial. The bottom line is that that's why people go to court. They need a judge to make decisions for their case. The challenges, coming from a private practice, is that I've basically been on someone's side, and now I have to be neutral, but going into the job, I know it is my job to have to make tough decisions. But I will miss my clients."

The public is welcome to attend Opat's investiture ceremony at Potter Auditorium on June 28 at 3 p.m.