Minn. Chief Justice Magnuson to leave court

3:30 AM, Mar 12, 2010   |    comments
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  • Chief Justice Eric Magnuson
  • Voted 4-3 against unallotments

MINNEAPOLIS -- The chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court is stepping down after two years on the bench. In a letter to Governor Tim Pawlenty Thursday, Chief Justice Eric J. Magnuson said he's leaving the high court to return to private practice on June 30.

Justice Magnuson, in his brief letter of resignation, said it had been a privilege to head the court and that he was exiting for "reasons personal to me and my family."

With only two years as chief justice, Magnuson's tenure will be among the shortest ever in the history of Minnesota's highest court.  Peter Stephen Popovich served three years, from 1987 to 1990, and only one year as chief justice.  He left when he reached the court's mandatory retirement age of 70. 

Gov. Pawlenty, in a written response release to the media Thursday, said Magnuson has served "with great diligence, thoughtfulness, and fairness."  Pawlenty will now begin a search for a judge to replace Magnuson.

A court spokesman said Magnuson was not granting media interviews, and probably wouldn't until his retirement date grew near.  However, the state's top judge will deliver a speech next Tuesday in Minneapolis.

He's scheduled to give the keynote speech at the 21st annual Freedom of Information Day Award Ceremony at Minneapolis Central Library. Organizers of the event say Magnuson is planning to address the 2008 Senate race recount, and ongoing efforts to allow TV cameras in trial courtrooms. 

It was two years ago this month that Gov. Pawlenty announced he had tapped his former law partner Magnuson to fill a vacancy in the Minnesota Supreme Court, and that he would make Magnuson the chief justice.  He took the oath in June of 2008, and almost immediately began grappling with budget challenges.

"He had to deal with a lot of stuff that had almost nothing to do with being a jurist or being a judge," said David Schultz, a Hamline University Graduate School professor who also teaches law classes.

As the chief justice Magnuson heads the Judicial Council, which makes him responsible for setting budgets for all the trial and appellate courts in the state.  In early 2009 he formed a coalition of prosecutors, public defenders and law enforcement officers in an effort to sound the alarm about funding shortfalls.

At a well-attended press conference at the Capitol he told reporters, "If funding for the state justice system is cut further or even held steady, then, collectively as a state we're going to have to answer this question: 'What part of justice do you want us to stop doing'?"

Since then, the deepening budget deficit has put even more financial strain on the court system. The courts were in line to take a two or three percent cut between now and June 30, 2011 when the current biennium ends.

By then Magnuson was already becoming a familiar face to those who followed the tumultuous recount in the senate battle between Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken.   The chief justice served on the state canvassing board, which had to individually inspect and judge thousands ballots that had been challenged by the two campaigns during the hand recount.

The board not only decided which ballots were valid, but also waded into the question of reviving some of the absentee ballots that had been rejected and never counted on Election Day.  The Chief Justice wasn't totally free of that process until early January, when the canvassing board certified that Franken had more votes than Coleman.

Thursday afternoon Secretary of State Mark Ritchie publicly thanked Magnuson for his efforts during the recount drama.

"His experience and wisdom brought a firmness and grace to the recount proceedings," Ritchie wrote,  "His faithful service left an indelible mark on Minnesota's election system."

Magnuson would've been expected to stand for election in November, and run for reelection every six years thereafter.  In his first ever election he was already facing opposition from an activist who favors allowing judges to run on issues and party platforms.

"And maybe he doesn't envy the fact he has to now go out and raise money to run for re-election as chief justice," Schultz speculated, "Especially if this job is already crowding out his personal life."

Schultz also noted that the high score is expected to issue a ruling, as early as next week, on a lawsuit challenging Gov. Pawlenty's use of unallotment to single-handedly balance the budget after lawmakers recessed in 2009.

"Many view the other six members of the court as closely divided on this case, and the chief justice is the swing vote," Schultz remarked, "So that's going to decide the outcome of whether or not the governor's unallotment from last year was constitutional."

"By him stepping down this very well may free up Magnuson to make the decision that he wants to make."

(Copyright 2010 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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