The Minnesota Supreme Court justice who wrote the majority opinion that struck down Minneapolis’ photo cop law last spring acknowledges that he was a bit disappointed that the court wasn’t allowed to get to rule on whether it was a good idea.
“The interesting issues lurking in the background were not reached, such as to what extent government should be able to invade your privacy, even in public,” said Sam Hanson, who recently left the court to return to practice at Briggs and Morgan.
Because photo cop shot the license plate of a vehicle running a red light and not the driver, and state law imposes driving responsibility on the driver, the justices had no choice but to affirm the lower court ruling that threw out the program, Hanson said.
“When a case presents itself you don’t get to render an opinion in the abstract,” he said.
Hanson was an atypical Minnesota Supreme Court justice, named to the bench by an atypical governor.
At 62, he was farther along in his career than most lawyers who are named to the bench, and not politically active. But then-Gov. Jesse Ventura made appointments based on recommendations of a screening panel, rather than those to whom he was politically beholding.
“He encouraged a lot of lawyers because it was an open process,” Hanson said. “The job was a dream come true.”
Minnesota Supreme Court cases are scheduled for oral argument two months in advance. In preparation, the justices and their law clerks read all the documents — which can range from a slim file to several boxes — relevant to the case. Just like on TV, the justices pepper the attorneys with questions during oral argument. Woe to those who think they can determine a judge’s leanings by his questions.
“You might ask a question because you’re trying to get the lawyer to shore up your thinking,” Hanson said. “Or you might ask a question because you’re trying to get the lawyer to persuade you otherwise.”
Either way, Hanson said he always had to winnow his 20 or so questions down to three or four in order to leave time for all seven justices to get a turn.
Hanson said he usually sat at one end of the bench and could see down the line that most of the justices had their fingers poised over the microphone button that would allow them to speak, like the contestants on a game show. Justice Paul Anderson was particularly quick on the draw, he said.
After a total of eight years on the bench, including two as an appellate judge, Hanson returns to practice law well ahead of the Supreme Court’s required retirement at age 70. He has no plans to retire from Briggs and Morgan, he said. Instead, he will advise other lawyers on which arguments are most likely to hold sway with the judges who were once his colleagues.
As a Minnesota Supreme Court justice, Hanson was paid $137,601 a year, compared with the $120,000 starting attorneys at the Minneapolis office of Dorsey and Whitney are paid. As a senior partner at Briggs and Morgan, Hanson is likely to be earning at least three times the salary of a just-out-of-law-school associate at Dorsey.