This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, a historic milestone for our state’s judicial system.
In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a significant increase in the number of appeals filed with the Minnesota Supreme Court, seeking review of trial court and administrative decisions. In response, the Supreme Court limited oral arguments, sat in partial panels, increased the number of its judges, shortened its opinions, and increased its reliance on court staff. But these efforts offered only temporary solutions, and there was no end in sight to the increasing caseload and the impact it was having on both the Supreme Court and litigants. Indeed, a campaign poster from the early 1980s stated: “If you think Minnesota winters are long, you haven’t appealed a case in Minnesota’s courts!”
In an effort to solve these problems, Chief Justice Douglas K. Amdahl led a campaign to create an intermediate court of appeals. For attorneys in Minnesota who have only practiced in a three-tiered court system, it may come as a surprise that the concept of an intermediate court of appeals was initially met with considerable skepticism. Critics argued that the creation of an intermediate appellate court was unnecessary, and that it would simply create another layer of bureaucracy without actually reducing the workload of the Supreme Court. Others argued that the new court would result in more delays to finality, as some cases would have to go through two levels of appeals instead of just one. There were also concerns about the qualifications of the judges who would be appointed to the new court, and whether they would be able to handle the complex cases that would come before them.
Following a lengthy debate, the Legislature established the Minnesota Court of Appeals by amending the Minnesota Constitution in 1982, and the intermediate appellate court heard its first arguments in November 1983.
Over the past four decades, the Minnesota Court of Appeals has earned a reputation as a model intermediate appellate court, both for the quality of its opinions and its efficiency. The court handles roughly 2,000 cases each year, and its decisions represent a final ruling in roughly 95% of cases appealed in Minnesota. Over the years, the Court of Appeals has increased in size from 12 to 19 judges. Currently, two-thirds of the judges are women and four identify as BIPOC.
The court’s role in elevating appellate practice within our bar is hard to overstate. The Court of Appeals has vastly expanded opportunities for Minnesota practitioners to develop an appellate-focused litigation practice, creating an important pipeline of appellate law clerks and allowing for more appellate oral argument opportunities. The court’s creation has also allowed a greater percentage of litigants to actually have their case heard and decided by an appellate court.
To commemorate the court’s 40th anniversary, Minnesota Court of Appeals Chief Judge Susan Segal has formed a committee of practitioners and current and former judges that is planning several events that will be taking place across the state over the next year.
The first event will be held in Owatonna at the Steele County Historical Society, 1700 Austin Road, at 5:30 p.m. March 30. Minnesota Supreme Court Justice G. Barry Anderson, along with Chief Judge Segal, and Court of Appeals Judges Renee Worke and Louise Bjorkman, will give a presentation on the history and evolution of the Court of Appeals, followed by a reception and short optional program by the historical society on Women Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. There is no cost to attend the Minnesota Court of Appeals Anniversary program. The cost to attend the reception and historical society event is free for historical society members and $5 for nonmembers. For more information or to register, call 507-451-1420, or email [email protected].
In addition to these events in greater Minnesota, in late fall there will be a large symposium and reception held in the Twin Cities. Chief Judge Segal hopes that all of these events will help raise awareness about the importance of the Minnesota Court of Appeals. In addition, these events will provide meaningful opportunities for attorneys, prospective law students, and members of the public, especially those in outstate Minnesota, to meet judges, network, and socialize. Chief Judge Segal stated:
“November 2023 marks the 40th anniversary since the Court of Appeals heard its first cases. Now, many tens of thousands of cases and opinions later, we are continuing to fulfill the mission and vision for the court—timely resolution of appeals in well-reasoned written opinions by a panel of judges who have carefully considered the parties’ arguments and briefs. The faith placed by the public in creating the court is a classic story of Minnesota good government—investing in the necessary resources to make our public systems work efficiently and well to best serve the people of this state. The current members of the court of appeals are proud to be able to serve, and look forward to celebrating the court’s 40th birthday and planning for the success of the next forty years of the court.”
More information about forthcoming anniversary events will be publicized by the court, the Minnesota Supreme Court Historical Society, and the MSBA’s Appellate Practice Section Council when details become available. We look forward to celebrating the many contributions of the Minnesota Court of Appeals and its judges and staff throughout 2023.
Erica Holzer is a partner and co-chair of the Appellate Practice Group at Maslon LLP, where she represents clients in complex commercial disputes, products liability litigation, and insurance coverage actions.
Katie Barrett Wiik is a partner in the Minneapolis office of Saul Ewing LLP and a Vice-Chair of the firm’s national appellate practice group. Her practice focuses on appeals and commercial litigation.