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Friday, May 16, 2008

Gearin to be Ramsey's top jurist

The wrangling over the top judicial spot in Ramsey County has come to an end.

Yesterday it was determined that the current assistant chief judge, Kathleen Gearin, will take over as chief when Gregg Johnson completes his term next month. In an election by their peers on the court, Gearin defeated Judge William Leary, who was also vying for the spot. Judge Edward Cleary will serve as the new assistant chief judge.

Gearin, a 1975 graduate of William Mitchell College of Law, has served on the Ramsey County District Court bench since she was elected to the position in 1986.

Contests for chief are not unheard of, but they are unusual.

Boldly going where no lawyer has gone before

As a Star Trek fan, I simply can’t resist passing along this tidbit of information that other “trekkie” lawyers -- and even some non-trekkies -- might find interesting.

Last Saturday, a student at the University of Mississippi School of Law leapt into the final frontier of the legal system when he received the first-ever space law certificate in the United States. According to a report at space.com, Michael Dodge of Long Beach, Miss., earned this special distinction along with his law degree through the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air and Space Law at the law school.

I’ve never heard of it, but the center has actually been around since 1999. Apparently it’s the only dedicated aerospace law curriculum in the nation from an American Bar Association-accredited law school. Requirements of the program include:
-- courses on U.S. space and aviation law, international space and aviation law, and remote sensing;
-- participation in the publication of the Journal of Space Law; and
-- independent research.

I guess there is a practice area for every interest these days, although there does seem to be a legitimate need for this unique niche. Issues facing a “space lawyer” range from the fallout over satellite shoot-downs to legal disputes between astronauts onboard the International Space Station. The expanding privatization of the space sector may also pose new legal challenges.

I wonder if Mr. Dodge will decide to office on the space station? Or a space ship? Or the moon? Regardless of where he sets up shop, I do have a warning for Dodge's potential clients: Don’t wear a red shirt when entering his law office …

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Lawmakers agree: flushing is optional

The Minnesota Legislature has yet to reach a consensus on things like reducing health care costs, providing property tax relief... and oh yeah... plugging that $935 million budget hole.

But on the bright side — the white, porcelain bright side — Tim Nelson over at MPR's News Cut blog reports that lawmakers in the House and Senate have backed a change in the plumbing code that would allow waterless urinals in Minnesota.

I've actually used this type of fixture — it was an underwhelming experience. But this is actually a big deal for environmental types and builders interested in promoting sustainable construction.

In the past, lawmakers balked at the idea of waterless urinals for obvious sanitary reasons, but their use in other states have shown they work just as well as the original (gravity, after all, does all the work) and can significantly reduce water use. Then again, the energy savings is probably offset by that strategically placed electronic advertising display — and you still have to wash your hands.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Did ya hear da one about...

The Nordic Heritage Club in Carver County is having a contest to see who can come up with the best original Ole and Lena joke. (Non-Midwesterners are excused from reading any further; we don’t pretend that Ole and Lena jokes are actually funny.)

We're not entering the contest, but in that spirit, we thought we’d toss out an Ole and Lena oldie for our audience of folks in the legal community:

While driving his pickup down the road one day with his mule in the truck bed, Ole was struck by a semi. He sued the company that owned the semi, and at the trial was being cross-examined by the company’s attorney.

“Sir,” said the attorney, “isn’t it true that when the responding officer came to the scene and asked you how you were, you told him you were OK?”

“Ya, dat’s true,” said Ole.

“Then what possible grounds can you have to file a lawsuit against my client?”

“Vell, when da officer saw dat my mule’s legs was broken, he took out his pistol and shot her. Ven he came over and asked me how I was, vat did you tink I would say?”

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Public defender heroism in St. Louis County

It turns out we had a hero in our midst and most of us didn’t realize it. It is a little reminder, if one was needed, of the good work done by public defenders every day. In St. Louis County, public defender Mark Groettum was attacked by his client, who wrapped his arm around Groettum’s neck and punched him repeatedly in the face. Remarkably, the defendant then requested a new court-appointed lawyer. He argued to the Court of Appeals that his due-process rights were violated when his lawyer was discharged without a hearing in which he could participate.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals said today that he forfeited his right to a court-appointed lawyer, a ruling of first impression in this state but in line with other jurisdictions, which the court cited extensively. The defendant complaints of other errors in the proceedings following his assault on Groettum but the court also turned those back. Look for more coverage of State v. Lehman in next week’s Minnesota Lawyer, but in the meantime, hats off to Groettum, who exemplifies the risks public defenders run every day.

A final farewell to the 'Anderson' bloc on the Minnesota high court

Here in Minnesota we are in the waning days of the "Anderson Court" -- the rather unique situation our high court has had of having three out of seven justices with the same surname. (I don't know who this "Ander" guy was, but he really seems to have gotten around.) Chief Justice Russell Anderson, who is stepping down on June 1, will be feted at a retirement part hosted by the State Bar on Thursday. Once he departs, there will be only two Justice Andersons left on the court -- Paul Anderson and Barry Anderson. (Minneapolis attorney Eric Magnuson has been appointed to replace Russell Anderson as chief, and, as any native Minnesotan knows, there is a world of difference between the names of Ander-son and Magnu-son, or at least five letters of the alphabet.)

All three Justice Andersons originally got their seats on the court through gubernatorial appointment rather than the election process, so their presence there has little to do with the fact that Scandinavian surnames have historically been gold at the ballot box in Minnesota. (As some may recall, a high court candidate once tried adopting his wife's Scandinavian family name as his middle name to help him win election to the court. It didn't work.)

There is no evidence this "Anderson bloc" has really made any difference in real terms. They do not appear to have any proclivity to vote together -- and, in fact, I recall at least one decision where the majority opinion was authored by one Justice Anderson, with another Justice Anderson specially concurring and the third Justice Anderson dissenting. (Kind of sounds like the "Three Faces of Eve," doesn't it?) In fact, as near as I can divine, the major advantage of having three Justice Andersons on the high court has been to give the governor a nearly endless supply of jokes about it. And, as we all recently witnessed with the governor's rather unfortunate quip after the fishing opener, he can use all the help in that department he can get ...

Monday, May 12, 2008

High court puts community outreach into high gear

The filing period for judicial elections (and, of course, other state elections as well) starts in about six weeks. Candidates must file with the Secretary of State between July 1 and 15. But campaign season appears to have already begun -- at least for the two Minnesota Supreme Court justices up for election this year.

As we mentioned in a post Friday, Justices Paul Anderson and Lorie Gildea -- the two members of the high court whose names will appear on the 2008 ballot -- have taken visible public roles in this week's Sesquicentennial festivities. Anderson will be impersonating a 19th century high court justices at various events; Gildea not only is portraying the state's first justice (who happens to have been, not surprisingly for the time, a man), but also is taking on a second role portraying the state's first woman lawyer. In the spirit of the first role, she even agreed to ride a horse.

Now, I can't say for sure there is an election tie in. For example, I have little doubt that Anderson -- who is well-known as a court history buff and as the high court's goodwill ambassador at public events -- would not have to be asked twice to be a part of something like this. And perhaps Gildea has always wanted to ride a horse in period costume during a parade, for all I know. But there is little doubt that these public platforms afford the justices an opportunity to be seen by John (and Jane) Q. Public, who don't often get over to the Minnesota Judicial Center to see the high court in action.

Even putting election-year politicking aside, it's no secret that the state high court has increased its community outreach efforts substantially over recent years. Former Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz made this a priority as part of the courts' efforts to educate the public on its role -- and Chief Justice Russell Anderson has continued those efforts. Outreach efforts have included holding oral arguments "on the road" in locations throughout the state, including high schools and law schools. (Hopkins High School last week hosted an oral argument, for example.)

The efficacy of the outreach efforts is difficult to quantify -- and, despite all past efforts, the judiciary remains by far the most misunderstood branch of government. Nonetheless, I think that it's an important part of the judicial function to at least try to bring a better understanding to the general public. While donning ancient jurist garb and riding a horse or strolling around the Capitol grounds may on its face have limited utility in fulfilling this function, a few folks may just get curious enough to start boning up on these robe-clad individuals who make up a third of their government. If it does that, I suppose wearing cowboy boots is a small price for a justice to pay ...