Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson announced his resignation Thursday, signaling an abrupt end to a tenure that, though brief, earned him widespread respect among fellow jurists and attorneys.
Citing only "reasons personal to me and my family," Magnuson said in a letter to Gov. Tim Pawlenty that he would return to private practice.
The 59-year-old justice, who took over the court in June 2008, would have stood for election this fall. Instead, the office will become vacant June 30, and the governor will appoint a successor.
While political circles swirled with speculation over the surprise announcement, several colleagues and acquaintances said they took Magnuson at his word. Magnuson declined requests for interviews.
Magnuson's nearly two years as the state's 21st chief justice were marked by several notable issues, including the disputed U.S. Senate election between Al Franken and Norm Coleman, the erosion of funds for court systems statewide and the high court's approval of a new method of elections.
In each instance, Magnuson emerged as a fair judge and a strong leader, colleagues and observers said.
"I always introduce Eric as 'He has the potential to be one of the best Supreme Court justices,' " Associate Justice Paul Anderson said. "He used to say, 'Why don't you take out the "potential." ' I said, 'Maybe I will when you retire.' "
Like many in and around the seven-member court, Anderson said he was surprised and disappointed to learn of Magnuson's announcement.
"I was astonished," said Peter Knapp, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law. "And I was quite sad. He's been a superb judge, but more than that, a leader for the judicial branch."
Magnuson was appointed by Pawlenty in March 2008 to succeed retiring Chief Justice Russell Anderson.
The governor's choice was remarkable in that Magnuson would become the first chief justice since World War II who was not already a member of the Supreme Court. In fact, he had never been a judge, though he had a reputation as a skilled appellate lawyer. Combine that with the fact that Magnuson and Pawlenty had practiced at the same law firm, and some wondered how independent Magnuson would be.
"There were some people who were publicly muttering about that, but they were making assumptions that turned out to be wrong," Knapp said. "I think people misunderstood his deep commitment to the job. Once he took his job, that was it."
Senate Recount / Magnuson's partisanship — or lack thereof — was soon put to the test under the polarized glare of the protracted 2008 election to the U.S. Senate between Franken, a Democrat, and Coleman, a Republican. Magnuson was appointed to the five-member Minnesota Canvassing Board, a usually dull task that, as history would have it, became integral in the process that eventually led to Franken's victory.
Ramsey County District Judge Kathleen Gearin, who sat next to Magnuson on the panel, said she wasn't sure what to expect when the body convened for the first time.
"Right away, the way he conducted himself, I said, 'This guy's going to be fair,' " Gearin recalled Thursday. " 'He's handling it straight.' " Gearin remembers his discipline when it came to analyzing individual ballots.
Magnuson emerged as a leader in establishing precedent for what votes would be counted. He even kept a chart diagramming which type of votes the board had counted and which it hadn't, and it served to translate ballots full of squiggles, stray marks and ad libs into voter intent. It impressed Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who also served on the panel.
"His early keeping of the chart — the hieroglyphics chart — was crucial, and I think for me, it was one aspect of recognizing that the skills of these justices and judges were critical not only for the integrity of the process, but the technical part in making sure this was going to happen in an orderly way," Ritchie said.
Ritchie, a Democrat, said he remains grateful Magnuson decided to take on the role himself, rather than delegating it. By and large, the board was seen as nonpartisan, and Ritchie said Magnuson's awareness of the public scrutiny — he would sometimes explain the board's reasoning directly to cameras — led to public acceptance of the final result.
Judicial Advocate / Magnuson's departure comes as courts once again are fighting drastic budget cuts proposed to help close a $1 billion deficit. A variety of proposals have been brought forth, all based on Pawlenty's initial recommendation of a $14.7 million cut. At the time the proposal was released last month, Magnuson did not bite his tongue.
"I am disappointed in this recommended cut at a time when our base budgets are already insufficient to fund the level of judicial services that Minnesotans expect and deserve," he said.
His outspoken advocacy for court funding — which challenged the proposal of his friend the governor — earned Magnuson more respect.
"This is his legacy," Anderson said. "You've got to appreciate his independence. He was an adviser and a friend to the governor, no question. They're close, but he understood his role as the chief meant he had a duty to the judiciary. He disagreed with the governor and he spoke up."
It wasn't his own $160,000 salary — a stiff pay cut from what Magnuson likely earned in the private sector — that Magnuson argued for. Money for court clerks, administrators and public defenders was the centerpiece of Magnuson's campaign, which brought him to nearly every courthouse in the state, Knapp said.
Instant-Runoff Voting / Perhaps Magnuson's most lasting ruling from the bench will be the decision that a new form of voting, known as instant-runoff voting, is constitutional. The method, which allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, was approved by voters in Minneapolis but challenged as violating the one-person, one-vote principle.
The Supreme Court said it didn't. "It's a strong decision, and he wrote it," Knapp said. "The court he presided over isn't ideological and isn't activist. It interprets, and that ruling showed that. And it ushered in the era of IRV."
Minneapolis completed its first election in 2009, and St. Paul voters will hold their first in 2011.
Supreme Court justices serve six-year terms and can stay in office until the age of 70.
Anderson said he had little doubt Magnuson could have served until then.
"When you come up to the Supreme Court, it takes a little bit of seasoning to become a good justice, and he was seasoning well," Anderson said. "There's a little bit of anxiousness and worry about who might replace him."
It's unclear when Pawlenty, who issued a three-sentence statement thanking Magnuson for his service, will appoint a successor.
Eric J. Magnuson
Residence: Inver Grove Heights
Family: Wife, Katie; four adult children, one grandchild.
Education: Bachelor's degree in history from the University of Minnesota, law degree from William Mitchell College of Law.
Professional experience: Attorney and shareholder at the Briggs and Morgan law firm in Minneapolis, 2007-08; partner with the Rider Bennett law firm, 1977-2007