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Traveling court brings justice, lessons

Minnesota Court of Appeals Judges Matthew Johnson and Carol Hooten flank the presiding judge, Frank Connolly (center), in the St. Louis County Board of Commissioners Chambers on Thursday. The appeals court heard cases as part of its regular effort to take certain proceedings out of St. Paul and into nonmetro Minnesota. (Brady Slater /

Did you know Minnesota is a “notice pleading state?”

That’s a big way of describing a process that spares filings in a civil case from having to contain hyper-technical details. During its proceedings in Duluth on Thursday, the Minnesota Court of Appeals gave a broad civics lesson on this and other legal fine points.

A three-judge panel from the 19-judge court was in Duluth’s St. Louis County Courthouse as part of its regular effort to take rural and regional proceedings out of St. Paul and into nonmetro Minnesota.

Right off the bat, the presiding judge, Frank Connolly, ran into interference. The judges’ chamber was locked and required a key-in code he tracked down on a different floor — all while carrying his iconic judge’s robe in a garment bag.

“How exciting,” he said when informed about the nature of this specific assignment: to watch the proceedings with less an ear toward case specifics and more an eye on the judicial process.

Connolly gave a nod to the panel’s whereabouts with his opening remark.

“Of course we’re very happy to be here in Duluth,” he said, getting more effusive about the city than Bob Dylan ever has in his rare concerts here.

There was no pomp or ceremony one might see before, say, a City Council meeting. Everything was direct. The arguments were thoughtful, respectful and occasionally dense. Both lawyers and judges cited legal precedent so often, an observer would be excused for wanting an iPod or tablet that featured pop-up hyperlinks that were activated with each reference uttered.

Afterward, Judge Matthew Johnson spoke to why the panel came to Duluth.

“It’s been something that’s been done since the beginning in 1983,” Johnson said, explaining that the state Legislature, in creating the court, also mandated it reach out to nonmetro communities, except when travel is iffy in wintertime. So, the panels regularly hit Duluth, Rochester, St. Cloud, New Ulm, Detroit Lakes and Moorhead. The goal is to bundle six regional appeals cases to maximize each outstate visit.  

The three-member panelists serve with each other quarterly, followed by a reshuffling of the court’s six panels.

“It’s a nice feature,” Johnson said. “We have continuity in working with people, but over time I work with all of my colleagues.”

Chief Judge Edward Cleary is not assigned to a panel, but fills in among all of them. He was not needed in Duluth this day.   

 The court neither accepts new testimony nor evidence. Rather, it hears arguments as it reviews previous decisions and procedures for errors.

One case Thursday involved a man — a steelworker — appealing having to pay his ex-wife spousal benefits from retirement fund earnings made after the couple’s marriage dissolved. The trial court erred in using that income to help calculate benefits owed, the man’s attorney claimed.

Another case pressed the panel to reconsider whether a man who fell down deck stairs that did not feature a railing was due damages. In the day’s first case, the judges considered a complex matter, involving, in part, whether or not a legal aide acting on her own to solicit a man’s signature to hand over power of attorney to his nephew meant that the attorney himself had entered into a legal counseling agreement with the man.

“A worst nightmare” scenario is how one of the attorneys described the rogue aide.

Attorneys for each side have 15 minutes to present their arguments to the panel, with the attorney filing the appeal allowed a final 5-minute rebuttal. The 15 minutes pass by quickly and were counted down on a large red-numbered stop clock. There was ample back-and-forth between the judges and lawyers.

“It puts a premium on lawyers being concise and well-prepared,” Johnson said.

During one verbal exchange, Johnson delivered one attorney a sound bite worthy of prime-time television when he said, “Causation is more complicated than simply using the word ‘cause.’ ”     

The state’s Court of Appeals is the hurdle before a case has a chance to reach the state Supreme Court. Only roughly three to five percent of Court of Appeals cases move on to the state’s highest court.

The Court of Appeals has 90 days to make its decision after hearing a case.

“That’s by legislative statute, too,” Johnson said. “Other states around the country don’t have that. Ours is a very timely court.”