Pawlenty names former law partner to chief justice

Eric Magnuson and Tim Pawlenty
Eric Magnuson speaks to reporters during a Monday morning news conference after being introduced by Gov. Time Pawlenty. Gov. Pawlenty appointed Magnuson to be the next Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Eric Magnuson's name has been discussed in legal circles as a potential supreme court pick for several years, and Gov. Pawlenty said it's for good reason.

"It is not an exaggeration to say that he is the most, or one of the most respected appellate lawyers in the country," Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty knows Magnuson well and said he didn't interview any other candidate for the position. The two worked together at the now defunct Rider Bennett law firm. Magnuson was also in charge of screening judicial candidates for Pawlenty.

When he takes the helm in June, Magnuson will be the first chief justice named to the court without Supreme Court experience since 1937. Pawlenty said Magnuson should not have a sharp learning curve.

Eric Magnuson and the Minnesota Supreme Court
Eric Magnuson and Gov. Tim Pawlenty hold a news conference with members of the Minnesota Supreme Court.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

"Eric is so intimately familiar with the court and appellate practice that it's not much of a concern that he wouldn't be a sitting member of the court because I think he knows so much about it, knows the court so well," he said. "He knows the procedure, the personality and dynamics so well that it will be a smooth transition."

Magnuson has argued cases before the supreme court dozens of times. He was also a law clerk to former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Robert Sheran and was a clerk to Hennepin County District Court Judge Douglas Amdahl - who later became chief justice. Magnuson said it was truly humbling to be named to the court.

"I remember sitting in my interview with the Supreme Court to be a law clerk," he said. "Back then you did it in a big conference room behind the formal court room. I came back thinking 'they have the best job in the world.' For 32 years I've been thinking this would really be a good job but I've had other commitments and I think I'm finally in a position to be able to finally take this job and enjoy it."

Magnuson will be leading the court as it faces some challenges. First, the Legislature is considering a proposed constitutional amendment that would change how judges are picked and retained. Magnuson said he hasn't kept up with the debate but will get up to speed on it in the coming months.

There are also concerns about funding for the courts. Current Chief Justice Russell Anderson has been highly critical of Gov. Pawlenty's latest budget proposal.

Pawlenty is proposing a 4 percent cut to the courts which Anderson says would cause problems. He said if Pawlenty's cuts are enacted, some court offices would close, hours would be trimmed and staff will be laid off.

Magnuson, who will take the helm after the Legislature is constitutionally required to adjourn, said he'll deal with whatever funding is agreed to.

"You do what you can do with what you have," he said. "The governor has been pretty clear on that as his philosophy for the state and we'll continue to deliver a high caliber service to the citizens but we'll just make do."

Another member of the court, Justice Paul Anderson said he expects Magnuson to make a smooth transition on the legal matters before the court, but said the new chief justice will have to get up to speed on managing the courts.

Anderson said Magnuson's name first started surfacing as a possible Supreme Court candidate in the 1990s. Anderson said the current members of the court won't feel slighted that Magnuson was selected over them to be the chief justice.

"I've been around long enough to know that you don't worry about that especially when somebody brings that type of experience," he said. "As I said, he was arguing before us just recently and I thought, boy, it would be nice to have him on this side of the bench because he brings that background."

With Magnuson's pick, Pawlenty has now selected a majority of the seven members on the Minnesota Supreme Court. He also appointed G. Barry Anderson, Lori Gildea and Chris Dietzen.

No one knows whether the makeup of the court will affect its decision making. The Minnesota Republican Party was quick to praise the Magnuson appointment. Magnuson is known as a friend to social conservatives.

In 1994, he wrote a friend of the court brief for an anti-abortion group that argued the state should not have to pay for abortion services. The court, citing a right to privacy, rejected Magnuson's argument and ruled in the case that state funding should pay for low income women to have abortions.

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