What does the chief justice do?by Elizabeth Stawicki, Minnesota Public Radio
In naming Eric Magnuson the next Chief Justice, the governor did more than just add a new person to the seven-member court. The chief plays an important role in guiding the
St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota's Supreme Court is the highest appellate court in the state and nearly always has the last word on the legal issues that come before it.
While one might think that the chief justice has some extra power in deciding legal opinions, he or she has only one vote -- no more, no less than the other justices.
William Mitchell Law Professor Peter Knapp, who's studied the state's Supreme Court, said while the chief justice is often called the "first among equals," it's difficult to know how much power a chief wields behind the closed doors of the conference room.
"The only people who can answer that question are inside that deliberation room when the court meets to decide how it's going to handle cases after oral argument," he said. "And the only people who are inside that room are the seven justices of the Supreme Court."
The role of chief is important in other ways the public may not necessarily think of. In addition to helping write opinions, the chief has responsibility for managing how Minnesota's court system runs as an entity. Right now, the state has 288 judges who handle more than two million cases per year.
Some chiefs reportedly have had a top down management style, others were consensus builders. In addition, Knapp said the chief is responsible for getting groups together to study and develop better ways to regulate and improve justice.
In the past the Supreme Court has convened task forces on racial discrimination in the courts and gender discrimination in the courts.
"The chief makes appointments to judicial committees to task forces and quite often ends up serving as the public face of the court," he said.
Often that face goes before the state Legislature during budget hearings or to testify on other matters that affect the court.
Just a few weeks ago, current Chief Justice Russell Anderson went before three Senate committees calling for a different system for Minnesota to choose its judges and justices. He argued that the public should not elect judges outright, only vote on whether to retain them once in office.
Anderson will remain as chief until June 1. He said he's retiring because of his wife's health problems and because of his age of 66.
- All Things Considered, 03/17/2008, 5:24 p.m.