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Appeals court hears judge’s retirement challenge

Galen Vaa

Galen Vaa

With the prospect of his compulsory retirement date drawing closer, Clay County District Court Judge Galen Vaa took his fight to the Minnesota Court of Appeals on Wednesday, urging a three-judge panel to revive his long-shot challenge to the retirement rule.

Vaa, who has served on 7th Judicial District bench since 1999, was re-elected to a six-year term in 2014. He will be required to step down next March — with two years remaining on his term — when he turns 70.

That is, unless he manages to convince the appeals court panel that the Minnesota Supreme Court missed the mark in two prior rulings and, further, that the 1973 statute which established the retirement age violates two provisions of the Minnesota Constitution.

“This is one of the most important legal issues this court will ever preside over,” declared Vaa, adding that no matter how the appeals court rules, the case will likely wind before the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Back in the role of advocate after nearly two decades in a robe, the judge was a touch prickly at times and bristled when Court of Appeals Judge Jill Flaskamp Halbrooks rejected his request that he be afforded some extra time to lay out his arguments.

That was hardly the only adverse ruling Vaa has gotten from his fellow jurists of late. Prior to the oral argument, Chief Appeals Court Judge Edward Cleary shot down his bid for permission to submit his briefs in paper format. Vaa, a civil litigator in his pre-judging days, had complained that he wasn’t set up for e-filing but, in Cleary’s view, that was not a sufficient hardship to provide an exception.

More significantly, Ramsey County District Judge Robert Awsumb tossed out Vaa’s lawsuit, saying that a 1956 amendment to the Minnesota Constitution — Article 6, Section 9 — authorized the establishment of an age-based compulsory retirement law. That happened in 1973, when the Legislature enacted the retirement mandate as part of the Uniform Judicial Retirement Plan.

But in Vaa’s view, the 1956 amendment, which says that the Legislature “may provide by law for retirement of all judges,” was never about authorizing a compulsory age-based retirement scheme for judges; it was about giving them benefits.

The 1956 amendment also eliminated a constitutional provision that said a judge could receive “no fee or reward” aside from his or her salary, which was necessary, according to Vaa, to prevent the possibility that judicial retirement benefits might be deemed a “fee or reward” and therefore declared unconstitutional.

Vaa urged the appeals court to focus on another provision of the constitution — Article 6, Section 7 — which says that “the term of office of all judges shall be six years.” Enforcement of the retirement mandate means that judges who turn 70 before completing their term of office must step down, which, he argued, runs afoul of the non-permissive constitutional proviso that the term of office “shall be six years.”

Vaa ran into some skeptical questioning from the panel, including from one of the court’s newest members, Judge James Florey.

“If we adopt your position … wouldn’t we be rendering the Supreme Court’s decision meaningless?” Florey asked, referencing the 1986 ruling in which the high court rejected a constitutional challenge to the mandatory retirement law from another Clay County judge, the late Gaylord Saetre.

Vaa acknowledged that the Court of Appeals can’t reverse Saetre. But he argued that the Saetre decision did not squarely address some of his arguments, including the Article 6, Section 7 claim on term of office.

“If you have a decision of the Supreme Court that does not discuss an issue that the appellant raises in the petition, you have the right file for a rehearing under Rule 140,” Vaa noted. That option was not available to Saetre, he explained, because Saetre’s replacement on the bench was sworn in just two days after the Supreme Court decided the case.

In asking the court to revive his suit, Vaa argued that Awsumb got it wrong when he invoked the Saetre decision and the doctrine of stare decisis.

“The rule of stare decisis only applies when the record shows the Supreme Court deliberated with care on the precise issue [raised],” said Vaa.

Representing the named defendants (Gov. Mark Dayton and Erin Leonard, the executive director of the Minnesota State Retirement Systems), Assistant Attorney General Kathryn Landrum told the appeals court judges that their task was an easy one.

“And it’s easy because all of the constitutional issues before you today are long decided,” said Landrum.

The Saetre court not only found that the mandatory retirement age is constitutional, she said, it also held that the law mandating it was “directly authorized” by the 1956 constitutional amendment.  She also pointed out the Supreme Court re-affirmed the Saetre decision in 1990 when it rejected a similar challenge from yet another 7th Judicial District judge who didn’t want to retire, the late Rainer Weis.

But Judge Peter Reyes pressed Landrum on whether the Saetre court had, in fact, actually addressed the exact constitutional conflicts alleged by Judge Vaa.

“It is a brief opinion,” Landrum responded “Sometimes the Minnesota Supreme Court speaks in volumes by providing a short opinion. In this case, it was absolutely unnecessary to dive into each and every constitutional article and provision that was raised by Judge Saetre.”

“What the court tells us is that all of those claims fail and no additional analysis is needed,” she added.

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