New chief justice talks about future of Minnesota's courtsby Elizabeth Stawicki, Minnesota Public Radio
In state legal circles, there's no higher job than chief justice of Minnesota's Supreme Court. The position is essentially the CEO of a 3,200-person law firm.
But unlike the head of a private law firm, the chief justice can't raise hourly billing rates to meet a shortfall or turn down cases because of a lack of staff.
St. Paul, Minn. — Chief Justice Eric Magnuson seems to thrive on work, particularly if it means solving a knotty legal puzzle.
"When I'm writing an opinion, I kind of get into a zone," Magnuson said. "The pursuit of an answer in a circumstance where an answer is very difficult to come up with is really challenging. And then saying it just the right way, I can lose myself at the keyboard trying to write something. I can lose track of time."
Magnuson projects a comfortable, laid-back persona that belies an inner drive. He didn't come from a family of lawyers. His father sold steel-reinforced paper that's nailed inside box-cars so the cars can be filled with grain. His mother was a nurse.
Magnuson drove a truck and made pizzas in a bar to support him in college. He worked full time and got married while he was in law school.
After graduation, he worked 30 years at the now defunct Rider Bennett law firm in Minneapolis. During that time, he and his wife had four children, three of whom were born prematurely. All battled serious health problems. Later, his wife suffered a traumatic brain injury after a bike-car accident.
Magnuson said all are doing well now but he learned from juggling so many things at once.
"I learned you can't have it all," he said. "There were times when I shortchanged my family. There were times when I shortchanged myself. I'm a lot like my dad. There are things he used to say, 'That's just how it is, you take care of your family or you take care of your job and don't worry so much about yourself.' I just worked really hard."
Magnuson will have to work hard because Minnesota's court system is in a budget crisis. The Legislature cut the court's budget by nearly $4 million this past session. But Magnuson said he feels the court is actually underfunded by about $19 million, and he acknowledges morale is low among staff.
"I've been going to each of the judicial districts, and my plan is to go to each of the judicial districts and talk to the people on the ground that are doing the work," he said. "People are what make this system go. Eighty-five percent of our budget is people and when you're asking more and more from fewer and fewer you're putting pressure on them."
In addition, the state's public defenders have had to lay off or leave open more than 70 attorney positions.
At the same time, the court is doing some hiring for work on its database system. The Minnesota Court Information System, known as MNCIS, converted 10 different court databases around the state into one. MNCIS also allows attorneys to file documents electronically.
When asked about staff cutbacks but hiring for the computer system, Magnuson said the court doesn't fund the public defenders -- the Legislature does. And, the computer system is an investment that will eventually save money.
"I suppose if you followed your logic to its conclusion, we could sell the computers that we have here in chambers because I write pretty well with a pencil and a pad of paper," Magnuson said. "But that's not going to solve the problem. You have to have the tools to do the work."
Magnuson is looking to the next legislative session for more court funding.
Last session, the governor called for even deeper cuts than the Legislature. Magnuson and Gov. Tim Pawlenty are old friends, so the question is whether he'll have a better chance at getting the governor's ear over court funding.
"Oh that's a hard question to answer," he said. "I haven't tried it yet. Certainly to the extent that I can have a conversation with either the governor or the Legislature or both I'm going to have it. I can tell you this, if it's dependent in any way on personal energy and commitment and passion then we're in pretty good shape because I've got all of those things."
One question often asked of judicial candidates -- who is your favorite Supreme Court justice? For Magnuson, it's U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts.
Magnuson says Roberts is a clear thinker, clear speaker, and one who answers questions directly. Magnuson says he hopes he also has those qualities and will use them in managing the state's court system in the years ahead.
- All Things Considered, 07/29/2008, 5:24 p.m.