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Minnesota's Court of Appeals turns 20
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The Court of Appeals swearing-in ceremony on Nov. 2, 1983. Holding their hands up from left to right: Judges Daniel Foley, Harriet Lansing, D.D. Wozniak, Edward Parker, Susanne Sedgwick. In the foreground left to right: Chief Justice Douglas Amdahl and Chief Judge Peter Popovich. (Photo courtesy of Minnesota State Court System)
Minnesota's Court of Appeals turns 20 years on Sunday. The Court of Appeals is busy -- 95 percent of the time, it's the court that issues the final ruling on a case. And unlike other courts, the 16 judges must rule within 90 days, the shortest deadline of any appellate court in the nation.

St. Paul, Minn. — On Nov. 2, 1983, Minnesota Chief Justice Douglas Amdahl, the prime mover behind the creation of the intermediate court, could barely contain his enthusiasm for Minnesota's new Court of Appeals.

"I had the general feeling that if this day should ever come -- when I could attend the investiture of the appeals court judges -- that there would be choirs singing, bands playing and dancing in the aisles," Amdahl said. "And while those things are not taking place publicly so that you can see and hear them, I can assure you that they are taking place within me at this moment."

Before the state Court of Appeals, a person who believed a district judge erred in a case could only appeal to Minnesota's Supreme Court. But beginning in the late 1950s, the Supreme Court's caseload began to mushroom.

A book about the state's legal history, For the Record, said Minnesota Supreme Court filings soared more than 700 percent from 1957 to 1982 -- largely because the state's population was growing and so was the complexity of law.

It's hard enough just to get it straight without trying to put a political spin on it. The challenge is getting it done and getting it straight, and the self-respect comes in getting it fairly and right.
- Judge Ed Parker

State Supreme Court justices tried to cope by trying various alternatives. They tried expanding the bench to nine justices, assigning cases to panels of three justices instead of the entire bench, and they also tried issuing one-line rulings without explanations.

Even with those attempts, it could take the court up to three years to issue rulings. Some critics believed the Court of Appeals would just be another legal layer to wade through. But in the end, Minnesota voters approved a constitutional amendment creating the new court.

Gov. Rudy Perpich would ultimately appoint 21 members to the new court, but its first days began with six. Its first chief judge was Peter Popovich.

"As far as legislating is concerned, we're going to leave judicial legislating to the Supreme Court, and we're going to leave statutory legislating to the Legislature," said Popovich. "Our job, as we review the cases that come before us, is to look at that record, was an error created? Try to find the statutory law or the case law and apply it."

Ed Parker was one of those original six judges. While he says Gov. Perpich appointed mostly Democrats and moderate Republicans, Parker says politics never encroached on their rulings.

"It's hard enough just to get it straight without trying to put a political spin on it. The challenge is getting it done and getting it straight, and the self-respect comes in getting it fairly and right," said Parker.

Judge Harriet Lansing was also one of the original six judges and is the only one still on the court today.

"I was really excited to be part of it, and I felt really lucky," said Lansing.

Lansing and Parker were also instrumental in shaping the Court of Appeals. Before the court began hearing cases, they and their four colleagues met during the previous summer, hashing out the mechanics of how the court would operate.

They decided appeals court judges would hear cases in groups of three. Individually, they hear about 300 cases per year. But despite the workload, Lansing says the electricity of the first days of the Court of Appeals still remains.

"Relatively speaking, the court is still fairly young -- 20 years is not all that old for a court," says Lansing. "So there is still some of that same energy. We have new people coming on to the court, who feel to some extent that new enterprise we felt back in 1983."

In the past 20 years, one judge has cast a shadow over the court. Last June, former Judge Roland Amundson pleaded guilty to swindling $300,000 from a vulnerable adult. He repaid the money he stole, and he's now serving more than five years in prison.

Nevertheless, the court of appeals has endured. The National Center for State Courts says it's a national model of quality and efficiency. In 2001, the judges heard and ruled on more than 2,200 cases.

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