Magnuson stepping down as chief justice
ST. PAUL -- Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, who helped oversee a U.S. Senate recount and argued against massive budget cuts, will leave office June 30 after two years on Minnesota's highest court.
His Thursday announcement came just days before the Minnesota Supreme Court hears oral arguments in a case challenging Gov. Tim Pawlenty's authority to unilaterally cut the state budget.
Magnuson was unavailable for comment but in a letter to Pawlenty, who appointed him in March 2008, he cited personal reasons for stepping down.
"It has been my privilege to serve as chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court for the past two years," Magnuson wrote. "I have found the position to be both challenging and rewarding. However, for reasons personal to me and my family, I have decided to step down and return to private practice."
Pawlenty thanked Magnuson for his service.
"Leading Minnesota's judicial system and heading our highest court is an extremely important and tough job," Pawlenty said in a statement. "Chief Justice Magnuson has served in this role over the past two years with great diligence, thoughtfulness and fairness."
The chief justice leads the Supreme Court and, in essence, runs the state's judiciary.
Magnuson and Pawlenty worked together as partners at now defunct Rider Bennett. He was Pawlenty's fourth selection to the Supreme Court. But during his tenure, Magnuson disagreed with Pawlenty over proposed cuts to the judicial budget.
"He's done that in a very neutral, professional manner even though it had some potential cost for him," said Eric Janus, dean of the William Mitchell College of Law where Magnuson received his degree. "That really showed he is a person of extremely high integrity and principle."
Former Chief Justice A.M. "Sandy" Keith was surprised. He thought Magnuson was building great relationships with prosecutors, public defenders and other legal groups.
"He's made a very good impression on the entire system," Keith said.
Keith, who held the position from 1990 to 1998, indicated the work takes a toll.
"It takes a lot of time," Keith said of the position. "You have to travel throughout the state. There is a ton of reading. ... I hardly saw my wife."
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie got to know Magnuson during the U.S. Senate recount following the 2008 election. He said Magnuson showed up at the State Canvassing Board's first meeting armed with reams of research from judicial rulings dating back more than a century.
"He was going beyond the call of duty to help all of us," Ritchie said.
Ritchie credited Magnuson for his integrity and for the humor with which he approached the recount, noting especially Magnuson's amusement at write-in votes for imaginary candidates such as "Lizard People."
"He was fun," Ritchie said. "He has a tremendous sense of humor. He knew how important this was but how we had to be humans in the process."
Before joining the court, Magnuson worked at Briggs and Morgan in Minneapolis. He has no agreement in place to return, though Alan Maclin, president of the firm, said he would be honored to have Magnuson back.
"I believe he has distinguished himself as chief justice and we are eager to talk to him," Maclin said.
Rep. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, said Magnuson's legacy will be fighting for funding amid economic tumult. "Chief Justice Magnuson has been a tremendous and tireless fighter for the courts," she said.
Charlie Weaver, a Pawlenty friend and one-time attorney general candidate, said he and his wife learned the magnitude of the job while vacationing with then-Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz.
"She would bring along a foot-high stack of (legal documents) that she needed to read that weekend in preparation for oral arguments on Monday," he said. "It is not a glamorous job."
Weaver said Magnuson has done it well.
"He has proven in his brief two years to be an excellent chief justice, thoughtful and smart, not afraid to get involved in public policy in an appropriate way."
Andrew Tellijohn reports for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.