Magnuson's tenure as chief justice short, but eventful

Eric Magnuson
Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson reviews the results in Minnesota's U.S. Senate race today during a meeting of the state's canvassing board on Jan. 5, 2009. Magnuson announced Thursday that he is leaving the court as of June 30, 2010.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

The chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court announced Thursday he's stepping down at the end of June to return to private law practice. After two years on the job, Eric Magnuson said he's leaving for personal reasons.

In a letter to Gov. Pawlenty, his former law partner, Eric Magnuson said he "found the position to be both challenging and rewarding," but was stepping down "for reasons personal to me and my family."

A court spokesman said Magnuson is not granting interviews about his decision. Pawlenty issued a statement saying Magnuson has served "with great diligence, thoughtfulness, and fairness."

In addition to heading the state Supreme Court, the chief justice also heads the entire court system of 289 district judges who handle more than two million cases a year.

Magnuson's predecessor Russell Anderson also left the job after only about two years, for personal reasons. Anderson resigned to care for his ailing wife. Anderson said there's no question that being chief justice is challenging.

"There is a great deal of stress being the leader of the judicial system, this third branch of government in Minnesota. And it's not made easier by the financially challenging times that we're living in," said Anderson. "Courts are relied on by the people. Courts have to be there and functioning, and the chief bears the responsibility. He's the face of the court at the Legislature with regard to the funding of the courts."

Eric Magnuson and Tim Pawlenty
Eric Magnuson was appointed as chief justice of the state Supreme Court by Gov. Pawlenty in March 2008.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

No one could argue that Magnuson has enjoyed a sleepy tenure as chief. During his two years at the helm, Minnesota's court system has reeled from budget cuts. Right now the governor wants to cut $15 million from the court's budget, on top of previous cuts.

Last year, Magnuson presided over the Al Franken-Norm Coleman Senate recount as a member of the State Canvassing Board. On Monday, the court is scheduled to hear the governor's appeal of a decision involving his budget-cutting authority.

In addition, Magnuson is trying to get the Legislature to amend the state Constitution over how judicial elections are conducted.

The head of Minnesota's Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Mee Moua, DFL-St. Paul, says she's personally disappointed that Magnuson is stepping down, calling him a terrific leader for the judicial branch.

On the other hand, Moua says the court system is organized to handle the transition.

"I think that there is still a governance structure in place that is more permanent and that will continue to guide the work of the judiciary, so I don't expect a big big gap in the continuity of the work of the judiciary," said Moua.

Before Eric Magnuson and Russell Anderson, Minnesota's chief justices typically served much longer terms. Anderson's predecessor Kathleen Blatz served for about eight years, as did Justice Sandy Keith before her.

Minnesota Supreme Court watcher Peter Knapp, a law professor at William Mitchell College of Law, says such turnover among chief justices is unusual.

"We have had other Supreme Court chiefs who served only relatively short tenures. But by and large, we've been blessed to have chiefs who've been able to stay for relatively substantial periods of time."

The position of Minnesota Chief Justice pays about $160,000 per year. While that is a high salary by most accounts, he could earn much more in private practice.

Magnuson's leaving means Gov. Pawlenty will make a third appointment of a chief justice to Minnesota's Supreme Court.

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