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Pawlenty picks new chief justice

ST. PAUL - Eric Magnuson used to lead a commission that helped pick judges; now he is getting ready to become Minnesota's top judge.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Monday named the Minneapolis lawyer the state's chief justice, on June 1 replacing the retiring Russell Anderson.

Magnuson, 57, has been an appellate attorney, arguing cases in state Appeals and Supreme courts, as well as in the federal court system.

"He is one of the most respected appellate lawyers in the country," Pawlenty said in making the appointment.

Anderson praised Pawlenty's pick, calling Magnuson outstanding.

"We know him as a lawyer's lawyer," Anderson said.

Magnuson faces a couple major issues as he prepares to take over leadership of a judicial system with 3,000 employees, 300 judges and a $300 million annual budget.

Anderson, a Bemidji native and former Crookston judge, has been an outspoken opponent of a movement to elect judges based on political party affiliation. He supports a recommendation from a commission headed by former Gov. Al Quie to end election of judges, instead opting for gubernatorial appointments while giving the public a chance to remove judges from office.

The new chief justice said the current system of picking judges has worked well to keep partisanship out of the judiciary.

However, he said, he has not had time to examine a proposed constitutional amendment to make all judges appointed; today, the governor appoints to fill vacancies, but the public otherwise elects judges. Still, Magnuson hinted he does not want to see judges elected on a partisan basis.

"We want to make sure we don't take a step backward," he said.

A second issue Magnuson may face is a budget cut. Pawlenty recommended a 4 percent judicial budget cut to help solve a nearly $1 billion state budget deficit. If enacted, Anderson said that would mean a 15 percent reduction in court workers.

Magnuson would not commit to his support or opposition to the Pawlenty plan.

"You do what you can do with what you have," he said, the governor standing a couple of feet away.

Besides working for the Minneapolis Briggs and Morgan law firm, Magnuson has written on appeals court matters in scholarly journals.

He has chaired the Judicial Selection Commission for Pawlenty, a panel that picks finalists for judicial openings upon a judge's retirement. His appointment did not go through that commission, and Pawlenty said he considered no one else for the job.

Magnuson said that for 32 years he has known he wanted to be an appellate judge.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.