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Behind the bench — and the scenes — with the chief justice

Note to attorneys who plan to argue before the Minnesota Supreme Court: Don’t beat around the bush if you want to impress new Chief Justice Eric Magnuson.

“Wandering is not a good way to get through the thicket,” Magnuson said in a recent wide-ranging interview.

After many years as an appellate attorney Magnuson is proud of his well-developed ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, and not get distracted by the chaff. It’s a skill he looks for in other lawyers and encourages in law students, he said.

A successful lawyer can isolate the legal principle then articulate the correct answer to go with that point, he said.

“I’ve seen hundreds of lawyers and the ones don’t understand that aren’t as effective,” he said. “The nice thing about having a clear point is you throw it out and then everything else is conversation. That’s where you can get into nuance. But that can be tricky. You want to make sure the point gets across first.”

Magnuson, who practiced law from the other side of the bench for more than 30 years, likened oral argument to singing a song. “The judges need to be able to hum the melody when they get back in chambers,” he said.

Magnuson pulled back the curtain on the notes the justices sometimes pass among themselves. On his first day of oral argument he entered the chambers and everyone stood, staring, until a justice passed him a note that said, “You can tell everybody to sit down now.” A little later he began asking questions of the presenting attorneys  when one of the justices sent him a note that suggested he push the blue button on the console to turn on his microphone which captures the argument on audio tape.  When he was done speaking another justice scribbled on a piece of paper that Magnuson should push the blue button again, this time to turn off the mike. Finally, when the arguments were concluded he got a note that said, “You can tell them they’re done now.”

And you thought the notes were about some high-minded legal principal.

His colleagues also gave him a boost during his first case conference.  Magnuson said he listened to the other justices go through a lot of give and take about the case, then summed up the arguments and succinctly outlined the parameters of the case. “I’ve got this one knocked nicely,” he thought to himself as he gathered his papers and stood. But the other justices remained seated.

“I think you forgot we’ve got another case to discuss,” one of the justices said to him.

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