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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Independent review of AG's Office a good idea

The Star Tribune has weighed in on the turmoil in the Office of the Minnesota Attorney General with an editorial calling for an independent review by the legislative auditor ("Resolution needed in AG controversy.") I think that is a fair proposal and one that I hope AG Lori Swanson takes to heart.

Critics of the union movement on this blog and elsewhere have blamed the turmoil and morale problems on everything from a Swanson DFL political rival, to a right-wing political conspiracy, to union bullying. In a bizarre twist, one Swanson ally on this blog even accused the Communist Party of orchestrating the disharmony.

While I certainly cannot disprove the allegation that one or more outside forces had a hand in the virtually nonstop internal issues that have roiled the office during Swanson's first 15 months, the ill-conceived management practices current and former employees in the office have described strike me as a much more likely culprit. In fact, when reports of the morale issues first started trickling to Minnesota Lawyer from current and former staff members at this time last year, those reports had an oddly familiar ring to them. An identical litany of allegations of mistreatment by management bubbled up from current and former staffers early in the administration of Swanson's predecessor and longtime mentor, Mike Hatch. (And I don't mean to pick on Hatch. Heavy-handed management approach and sometimes abrasive style aside, he was a staunch advocate for "ordinary Minnesotans" who today remains one of the state's most brilliant political tacticians.) But I cannot help thinking that if Swanson could just bring herself to abandon the management methods of her mentor, and instead adopt a more conciliatory approach, that would go a long way in diffusing the situation in her office.

However, no improvement will come about so long as the AG and some of her supporters continue to point the finger at outside sources as being the cause of the staff dissatisfaction. Having an independent third party come in to get at the root of things would be an excellent way to help the office resolve this seemingly intractable impasse. It's in the office's best interests, and, to be frank, in Swanson's own political interests to straighten this out. Let's get the legislative auditor in there to either give the office a clean bill of health, or more likely, find the areas that need addressing so that both Swanson and her staff can move forward.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Lawyers’ registration fee increased, LCL to benefit

Beginning July 8, Minnesota attorneys will be forking out an additional $8 when they go to pay their annual lawyer registration fee.

On Wednesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court amended the Rules of the Supreme Court on Lawyer Registration, increasing the annual fee and allocating the extra funds to the state’s lawyers’ assistance program. It’s expected that the increase will mean about $400,000 more per year for Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.

The request for the increase emanated from the Minnesota State Bar Association’s Life and the Law Committee. Co-chair of the committee, Tim Gephart, said last month that the committee believes in the importance of dealing with lawyers’ problems at the front end. Gephart, vice president of claims for Minnesota Lawyers Mutual, said that the underlying cause of many malpractice claims is untreated addiction or mental illness -- the kinds of things a lawyers’ assistance program can address.

Joan Bibelhausen, executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, was thrilled by the court’s approval of the request. “This gives us the opportunity to expand services and programs,” she said excitedly.

The extra funds will allow LCL to do more with law students and to reach out to Greater Minnesota lawyers and solo/small-firm lawyers who tend to be more isolated, Bibelhausen explained.

The increased registration fee means that attorneys on active status will see their bill rise from $221 to $229. I doubt that most lawyers will be too hurt by the extra $8, and I don’t think there was any serious opposition to the proposal.

I, for one, am pleased that the Minnesota Supreme Court saw fit to make sure that a program that serves such an important function is properly funded. Now, if we can just get the Legislature to do that for the judiciary …

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Terri Krivosha knows how to run a law office

Why did Twin Cities attorney Terri Krivosha -- a partner at the Maslon firm -- have this treadmill installed in her office?
A. It keeps her energized and fit as she works;
B. Having completed a four-year run as chair of the firm's Governance Committee, she thought it would be a good idea to get back on the partnership track;
C. These days an attorney must be really fleet of foot to stay ahead of the competition.

We''ll give you the answer to this and other compelling questions of the day in the Bar Buzz column in Monday's print edition of Minnesota Lawyer.

(Photo: Bill Klotz)

When judicial races attack

For anyone wondering why the Minnesota State Bar Association spends so much time debating the future of judicial races, let me present Exhibit A: Wisconsin.

We mentioned earlier this year how the race between Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Louis B. Butler Jr. and his challenger, Circuit Court Judge Michael J. Gableman, could become a big money, mudslinging slugfest.

Unfortunately, we were right.

This week, a citizens' group filed a complaint against Gableman with the state's Judicial Commission over a recent campaign ad accusing Butler of being soft on crime.

The complaint alleges that the ad "knowingly and with reckless disregard misrepresents the facts." Butler has since struck back with his own TV spot.

At stake is a 10-year term on the state's high court. The good news is that with an April 1 election, Wisconsinites only have to endure 12 more days of this judicial pissing match.

Let's hope we never have to.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Guardian ad Litem Program seeks advocates

We received the following release from the Hennepin County District Court. Sounds like a worthy cause for those who fit the bill. It's tonight, so you'd better hurry if you're interested ...

Guardians ad Litem represent the best interests of some 2,500 abused and neglected children involved in the court system through no fault of their own. Court decisions impacting a child’s future require a spokesperson on behalf of the child, an objective adult to provide independent information about the best interests of the child.

Approximately 250 specially-trained community volunteers serve as Guardians ad Litem. Of those, less than ten percent are Black and Black children represent 37 percent of youth needing advocates. The program seeks culturally competent advocates, especially for children of color.

The Fourth Judicial District Guardian ad Litem Program is hosting a child advocacy networking event to create awareness within the local community about the need for culturally competent child advocates. Attendees will receive information about how to become a volunteer Guardian ad Litem, view presentations and meet current Guardians ad Litem and others involved in the juvenile court process.

WHAT: Guardian ad Litem program child advocacy networking event
WHEN: Wednesday, March 19; 6:00 – 9:00 p.m.
WHERE: Babalu Restaurant, 801 Washington Avenue, Minneapolis, MN, 55401
WHO: Concerned citizens who have experience with children (parenting, other personal, volunteer or professional experience assisting youth), common sense and a desire to help children.

Magnuson's appointment could call selection process into question

It’s ironic that Minnesota’s outgoing Supreme Court justice, Russell Anderson, has been so outspoken about his fears that an open election process would politicize the process of choosing judges when one considers how the process of choosing his replacement contains the potential to suggest political expediency, if not outright cronyism.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty goes back years with new chief justice Eric Magnuson; the two practiced together at Rider Bennett, worked together on Pawlenty’s gubernatorial campaigns, and by most accounts are good friends. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with knowing the person you’re appointing to such a crucial position.

At the press conference to announce Magnuson’s appointment, Pawlenty, when asked about this issue, said, “Eric is intimately familiar with the court, so that doesn’t concern me.”

Fair enough. But what’s that old saying about even the appearance of impropriety being improper?

Unilaterally hoisting a longtime colleague with no experience on the bench directly to the high court’s top spot looks, at least to a lay observer, a little too convenient -- especially when the appointee was previously in charge of screening judicial candidates for the governor. Throw in the fact that Magnuson is Pawlenty’s fourth appointee to the high court, officially making it “his” court, and it’s hard to refrain from indulging in a bit of skepticism about the appointment process.

Magnuson’s credentials might be sound, but Minnesotans deserve some assurance that he was given the job based on his credentials alone, not his connections. It might be time for a formal screening process to accompany all high-level judicial appointments in Minnesota. Having the top candidates vetted by an independent commission -- even an ad hoc one for special cases like this -- would help lend some needed transparency to the process.

Magnuson comes across as remarkably informed and articulate on court-related topics. He’ll probably do a fine job. It’s too bad that the circumstances of his appointment seem perfectly aligned to invite scrutiny, deserved or otherwise.

Ciresi (sort of) gets mentioned on Letterman

U.S. Senate hopeful Al Franken was a guest on Letterman last night. Dave, of course, asked Franken about the Eliot Spitzer call girl scandal, and Franken quipped that, if elected, he promised not to do anything that stupid.

When Letterman asked Franken how his campaign in Minnesota was going, Franken replied that his "chief rival" for the DFL nomination had dropped out -- an obvious reference to Minneapolis trial attorney Mike Ciresi.

"Why did he drop out?" Letterman asked. And then, without waiting for a response and apparently still in Spitzer mode, immediately added, "Whores?"

Kind of makes the real reason the Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi attorney dropped out -- not being able to garner the support of enough party delegates -- look a little, well, boring.

At first I felt bad that Ciresi's 15 minutes of fame had ticked by to the point that no one even bothered to identify him by name on the show. Then, reflecting on the tenor of Dave's joke, I came to the conclusion it was probably the biggest break he got during his entire campaign.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

MPR, MinnPost continue coverage of situation at AG's Office

I have been following the coverage today on the the Minnesota Attorney General's Office by Minnesota Public Radio and Eric Black at MinnPost. I haven't posted anything primarily because the coverage has been fairly extensive and I don't have much to add at the moment.

It's worth noting that MPR has a posted a PDF of the lengthy letter that assistant AG Amy Lawler sent to Deputy AG Karen Olson after Lawler was placed on administrative leave over remarks she made to the media critical of management of the office. Regardless of your take on the situation, it makes for interesting reading.

UPDATE: The AG is mending some union fences. This in from the local Fox News site:

Beginning April 1, hundreds of Minnesotans will no longer be able to receive care at Park Nicollet. The clinic has chosen not to accept Medicare service plans, including Medicare-supplemental health plans. ...

The Local 49 union has reached out to Attorney General Lori Swanson. Swanson has taken up their case, accusing Park Nicollet of choosing profits over patients. While Park Nicollet has said they’ll continue seeing patients with complicated or compromised medical conditions, they fail to be specific about what that entails, says Swanson.

Click here for more.

Brief arguments

Minneapolis attorney Mary Vasaly recently returned from a trip to Washington, D.C., where she had a chance to hear from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on appellate advocacy. At today’s Minnesota CLE Appellate Practice Institute, she passed along two nuggets of advice Alito shared.

The first was that amicus briefs shouldn’t repeat the arguments of the litigants, but should present the case in a new light. That makes sense.

The other comment was interesting. According to Vasaly, Alito said he frequently only reads the summary-of-the-arguments in briefs. (Supreme Court briefs can be up to 15,000 words long.) Thus, it's important to pack as much information into that section as possible – but concisely.

I’m not sure how I feel about the justices not reading the entire briefs.

Happy birthday to us!

In two days, this blog celebrates its first birthday. That's right, March 20 is the one-year anniversary of the inaugural post on the Minnesota Lawyer blog.

Ah, yes, I remember those early days well. We started this blog with nothing but $20 million and a dream ... OK, OK, it was more like $1.50 and a catnap, but you get the idea.

At this milestone occasion, we'd like to thank you, our loyal readers, for your continuing interest and support. (Heck, for that matter, we'll even thank the disloyal ones ...)

Monday, March 17, 2008

The new chief in brief

It's hard to complain about getting so eminent a lawyer as Eric Magnuson as the new chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. My lone beef -- which I also expressed at the last high court appointment -- is that we have lost yet another opportunity to add diversity to the court. The seven member court will continue to have just two women (Helen Meyer and Lorie Gildea) and one minority (Alan Page).

Magnuson has a reputation as a nice guy with a brilliant mind and a winning personality (a John Roberts-type difficult-to-assail appointment). True he is a friend of the governor, but I would venture to say that Magnuson would be an excellent candidate on anybody's short list.

The major question floating around the legal community has not been whether Magnuson was qualified -- or even whether he would be offered the chief's spot -- but whether he would be willing to take the massive pay cut that accepting the job entails. As a Briggs and Morgan partner, it's likely he makes three or more times the salary he'll pull down as chief. That sort of pay disparity is shameful, but an unfortunate fact of life for those who choose to dedicate themselves to public service.

On the other hand, Magnuson will get a really cool state-provided robe. No word yet whether he will pull a William Rehnquist and put stripes on the sleeves ...

We knew all the world's a stage, but we didn't know CLEs were too

A CLE at the Guthrie???

It all sounds a bit dramatic, but the Guthrie Theater and West LegalEdcenter have teamed up to stage an elimination-of-bias CLE on themes relating to immigration law and religion. The March 25 program will incorporate live performance, lecture and panel discussion.

The ad for the presentation says that "uses one of Shakespeare's greatest plays." Judging by the CLE's title -- "Merchants of Faith: Bias in the Litigation of Religious Belief" -- I am going to guess they are talking about the "Merchant of Venice."

The two-credit program costs $200, which includes a post production wine and cheese program. To sign up, click here.

Securities lawyers are ready for Bear

So the legal question for the day is how many lawsuits will be born out of the implosion of Bear Stearns? The preliminaries are already underway. (See "Stunned Bear Stearns investors eye legal claims.")

"This is a stock that has gone from 50 to 2 literally overnight, and I also know of people who had assumed that the worst had passed when it closed at 30," said Ira Press, a lawyer at class-action firm Kirby McInerney, which has spoken with investors about the matter.

New MN Supreme Court chief? Horton hears a Scandahoovian

'Tis a great day for the ... Nordic?
Faith and begora, it may be the day for the wearing of the green, but not at the Minnesota Supreme Court, where, to the surprise of absolutely no one, the leadership torch has been passed from a Scandinavian to a Scandinavian.

Governor Tim Pawlenty has appointed friend, and advisor and former work colleague Eric Magnuson to replace retiring Chief Justice Russell Anderson on the Minnesota Supreme Court. (Click here for the Minnesota Lawyer article.) Magnuson is a highly respected lawyer who has served as head of the Commission on Judicial Selection under Pawlenty.

It has become a running joke in legal circles that, of the seven justices on the Minnesota high court, three are named Anderson. Another justice who retired in December, Sam Hanson, also was part of the "Scandinavian bloc" on the seven-justice court. With the appointment of Magnuson, the Anderson bloc goes down to two -- Associate Justices Paul Anderson and Barry Anderson. But you know the old saying, two Andersons are better than one. In any case, the appointment preserves the all-important "son" bloc at three justices.

Presumably the new appointment is being toasted with aquavit rather than the traditional green beer -- and instead of the traditional celebratory corn beef and cabbage, it's lutefisk and ... ummm ... hotdish? You get the idea. I'm off to Ikea to buy my gift for the new chief.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

New chief announcement likely to be speedy

Rumors have been rife in the legal community that Gov. Tim Pawlenty will act speedily in announcing a new chief justice for the Minnesota Supreme Court. Court watchers expect an announcement as to who will replace retiring Chief Justice Russell Anderson as early as this week.

UPDATE (3:58 p.m.): Make that really speedy. The governor has called a press conference for 9:30 a.m. tomorrow morning at which he is expected to announce his choice.