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Byron Starns in 1973 became deputy attorney general for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and lead trial lawyer in U.S. v. Reserve Mining. (Submitted photo)

Breaking the Ice: Tenacity led Southerner to Minnesota, environmental law

Name: Byron Starns

Title: Partner, Stinson

Education: B.A., political science, Duke University; J.D., University of Chicago Law School

But for Byron Starns’ persistence, the Stinson partner might not have joined the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, played a leading role in the state’s longest environmental enforcement trial and developed his environmental law practice.

The north Florida native was a University of Chicago Law School student in the late 1960s when representatives of then Minnesota Attorney General Doug Head arrived for interviews.

Starns didn’t get hired “because they couldn’t believe a guy from the South was interested in Minnesota,” he recently recalled. He took the initiative the next year, traveling to St. Paul, interviewing again and getting hired by Head in 1969.

Under the next attorney general, Warren Spannaus, Starns in 1973 became deputy attorney general for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and lead trial lawyer in U.S. v. Reserve Mining.

Q: What’s the best way to start a conversation with you?

A: Ask me a question or say hello. I enjoy talking to people in the elevator. The great Minnesota icebreaker is the weather.

Q: What prompted you to study law and pursue it professionally?

A: It was an interest in trying to help people. “To Kill a Mockingbird” was influential. Another influential book was “Gideon’s Trumpet,” the story of Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court case that established that indigent criminal defendants are entitled to representation when there’s a possibility of incarceration or a felony. One essential player was Walter Mondale, the attorney general who organized the amicus position in favor of the right to counsel, maybe the only attorney general on that side. That was courageous and progressive. It planted in the back of mind that Minnesota was a pretty special place politically.

Q: What books are on your bedside table or e-reader?

A: “Educated” by Tara Westover, a young woman who was hardly home-schooled and got a Ph.D. from Cambridge. I really enjoyed the new novel by Leif Enger, “Virgil Wander,” about the North Shore. On the policy side I’m reading a book by Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher and University of Chicago law professor called “Monarchy of Fear.”

Q: What is a pet peeve of yours?

A: It’s that society in general is moving to become more transactional and less relational in all walks of life. We have to work hard to try to preserve the value side of our life in addition to the business or transactional side. You end up mixing marketplace norms with social norms.

Q: What are your favorite aspects of being an attorney?

A: Solving problems in public policy and building relationships and teamwork.

Q: Least favorite?

A: It’s the transactional nature of everything. It undermines long-term relationships and makes everybody watch the clock.

Q: What’s a favorite activity outside your job?

A: I like things that enable me to concentrate and get my mind off of the day-to-day stuff. I like to play golf. I like to fish — fly fish, fish for walleye.

Q: If someone visits you in your hometown, what would you take them to see or do?

A: If it were Florida, it would probably to see some of the parks where the rivers go underground. They rise up out of springs, flow and go back down underground. Culturally, go to University of Florida football game. Up here the majesty of Lake Superior is incredible, the Boundary Waters, our natural resources here.

Q: Is there an attorney or judge, past or present, whom you admire most?

A: I have not met anybody in my professional life here that I haven’t admired to some degree. Of the people I know the best it’s [the late former Attorney General] Warren Spannaus. He was a wonderful person and the complete person to care about everybody. He was a great boss because he was an enabler of people not a controller.

Q: What’s a misconception people have about working as an attorney?

A: People don’t appreciate the degree of preparation required. There’s a lot more preparation than performance. People don’t realize attorneys are more open-minded because we’re trained to try to understand both sides of the issue.

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