Magnuson's speech was the first time as chief he publicly talked about the challenges facing the Minnesota court system and what he intends to do about them.
Magnuson, who is a former appellate lawyer, said there are many hardworking people in Minnesota's court system who are working even harder because the court is underfunded by $19 million.
He told a crowd of lawyers gathered at the bar convention that they need to contact members of the executive and legislative branches about getting more funding during the next biennium. He called the outlook for 2010 and 2011 grim. Magnuson said the state is looking at a projected deficit of $1 billion, and he said with inflation that amount could double.
"We have a responsibility to alert our partners, our funders, and the public the cuts have reached the bone," he said. "This is the alert, make no mistake. We are at the tipping point. We can't allow the next legislative session to be the repeat of the last one."
Some who work in the court system say the court has already tipped too far. They've had to reduce public hours in counties like Hennepin and Washington and for the first time have had to lay off people.
Some judges have said privately that they hope Magnuson will be a strong leader in securing more money for the court system, given his ties to Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Magnuson is the governor's former law partner and recently headed the governor's judicial selection committee. Magnuson replaced Russell Anderson who retired earlier this month as chief justice.
“This is the alert, make no mistake. We are at the tipping point.”Chief Justice Eric Magnuson
Magnuson also revealed his thoughts about whether Minnesota should scrap contested judicial elections. The issue has been hotly-debated in legal circles but has largely failed to catch fire with the public.
Magnuson said voters should no longer elect judges outright in contested elections. He said the state should move to a retention system where appointed judges run for election to retain their seats.
Under such a system, the governor would likely pick judges from a list of names gathered by a merit selection commission. Magnuson cited the last Wisconsin Supreme Court election where special interest groups spent millions of dollars on attack ads and predicted Minnesota was next.
"Our citizens trust our judicial system but what happens when you have even one big, nasty, highly-politicized judicial election concerns me greatly," he said. "Perceptions of fairness, equity and access I think will be dramatically undermined if the public's confidence erodes and it only takes one big campaign to do that."
Opponents argue that until Minnesota has a problem with big-money judicial campaigns, the public should still elect judges.
The move to change judicial elections stems from a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed judges to speak freely on legal and political issues. The Minneapolis lawyer who pushed for that change to the High Court was Greg Wersal. Wersal has filed another suit aimed at allowing judges and judicial candidates to endorse candidates for other political offices.
Under Minnesota's current ethics rules, judicial candidates may not endorse candidates for races other than their own.