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Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson stepping down

Chief Justice Eric Magnuson
Chief Justice Eric Magnuson

Eric Magnuson, chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, today announced plans to leave the bench on June 30.

Once Pawlenty’s law partner, Magnuson has been a vocal critic of budget cuts forced on the state court system during the last two legislative sessions but made no mention of the increasing financial pressure the justice system faces. Last year, he was instrumental in creating a coalition that worked to publicize the backlogs of cases and other challenges the state’s bare-bones budget would have on the courts.

 “It has been my privilege to serve as Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court for the past two years,” Magnuson said in a letter to Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “I have found the position to be both challenging and rewarding. However, for reasons personal to me and my family, I have decided to step down and return to private practice.”

Because of the cuts, many Minnesota courts have been forced to reduce hours, public defender caseloads have risen far above nationally recognized standards, and the cost of attorney licenses was raised sharply to raise revenue.

State court officials have testified this year before the Legislature to the size of the problem posed by the governor’s current budget request, which includes some $12 million in additional cuts to courts. Most said they are still scrambling to deal with deficits from last year and with Pawlenty’s “unallotment” action last summer.

Magnuson’s outspoken opposition was notable because of his association with the governor who mandated the cost-cutting, but also because his predecessors were rarely critical of the legislative process.

In a brief statement, Pawlenty said: “Leading Minnesota’s judicial system and heading our highest court is an extremely important and tough job. Chief Justice Magnuson has served in this role over the past two years with great diligence, thoughtfulness, and fairness. Minnesota thanks him for his service.”  

When he steps down Magnuson, 59, will have been the state’s top jurist for just two years. At the time Pawlenty appointed him to the court, he was an attorney and a shareholder in the business litigation department at the Briggs and Morgan law firm in Minneapolis, where he worked mostly on appeals. Before that, Magnuson and Pawlenty were partners at the now-defunct firm Rider Bennett.

While chief justice, he also served on the five-member Minnesota Canvassing Board that reviewed ballots in the disputed Senate election recount between Al Franken and Norm Coleman.

Before his appointment to the high court, Magnuson was head of Pawlenty’s judicial screening committee. He plans to return to private practice.

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Comments (10)

Just a journalism question, Beth.

This is the story I probably would have written; Like you, I'm speculating that the cost-cutting had something to do with his decision. But is it fair to write a story implying that is his reason without any attributable evidence or indication that is the case?

As long as speculation is the order of the day, is it not also possible that the presidential ambitions of our governor are
leading to increased pressure on his appointees for more support?

Ambitious pols are very hard on their supporters. The more ambitious they are, the harder they are on the people who got them there. Look at Lyndon Johnson.

If Magnuson wants to resign he probably thinks it best to allow Pawlenty to appoint a judge to his liking. There's no guarantee a republican will be there next January to pick a candidate with acceptable conservative pedigree. You can be sure Pawlenty didn't appoint Magnuson because he was a liberal or an independent thinker. But as these things go Magnuson turned out to be an impartial judge and a vocal advocate for the state court system. My guess is he's still a conservative and wants Pawlenty to guide the succession.

Magnuson has certainly spoken out about cost cutting in other venues. That he did not tie it to his resignation may just be an exhibition of class.

We're losing a good jurist and public servant. I think his resignation after two years speaks volumes, attribution or not.

With all the ballyhoo about judicial elections, just look here, a resignation which is timed so that the Governor appoints a successor. What a shock!

He has done much to speak out on the budget cutting and its impact on justice, remaining until June hopefully he will be even more candid. We cannot allow the governor and legislature to trumpet their protection of public safety from budget cuts without forcing them to acknowledge that the courts, public defender, and corrections are a vital part of public safety.

A functioning and independent judicial system is fundamental to our Constitution and the fabric of society. I know Chief Justice Magnuson to be not only a great lawyer but a very classy person. He is not the kind of person to spout a lot of political rhetoric so it is not surprising that he announced his retirement and return to private practice "for personal reasons". Last year he shook heaven and earth in an attempt to reduce the impact of budget cuts on the court system. But he did not accept the position as Chief Justice to continuously act as a lobbyist on behalf of the court system. It does not seem entirely speculative that his concerns over large additional budget cuts to the court system may have entered into his decision to leave this important position after two years and return to private practice. I doubt he is doing it to burnish his resume or because he wants to return to a more lucrative private practice.

But Governor Pawlenty's continual opposition to raising taxes even at the expense of poor people's and children's health and a functioning court system among many other important programs speaks volumes about his national political ambitions and lack of concern for the state.

Maybe (more speculation) he's resigning so he'll be able to campaign for whichever Democrat receives the party's endorsement for governor. Maybe, like most Minnesotans, he sees very well the harm the no-tax ideology has done to this state, and to others, and wants to help prevent the election of Pawlenty II (any anti-tax pledge signer) and instead foster our return to good government.

Tom A (#5). The movement toward the popular election of judges would lead to campaigns funded by deep-pocket types who want judges who will lean toward meeting the interests of corporations instead of the needs of ordinary people. We would see smear ads and ads that insinuate moral or fiscal failures and all that other junk.

Our current system works very well. The governor appoints and we get to vote up or down on his/her appointees when a judge's term is expiring.

I believe that the "up or down vote system" has only been proposed, not implemented.

Tom A (#9). Do you mean up-or-down election of new judges or up-or-down votes on whether to retain a sitting, appointed judge?

Former vice president Walter Mondale and former governor Al Quie (and perhaps others) are doing their best to educate the public as to its dangers of electing first-time judges instead of staying with the current system (gov appoints; public later retains or ousts with their votes).