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Briefly: A chat with Supreme Court Commissioner Tim Droske

By Katie Barrett Wiik & Erica A. Holzer, Special to Minnesota Lawyer//September 29, 2023//

The Minnesota state flag behind a statue of lady justice and a gavel and block image

Briefly: A chat with Supreme Court Commissioner Tim Droske

By Katie Barrett Wiik & Erica A. Holzer, Special to Minnesota Lawyer//September 29, 2023//

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Katie Barrett Wiik (left) and Erica A. Holzer
Katie Barrett Wiik (left) and Erica A. Holzer

Katie: Welcome, Commissioner Droske! Thanks for agreeing to talk with us about your  important work behind the scenes at the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Tim: Thanks for your interest! It’s nice to catch up.

Erica: You became the commissioner in December 2021, so you’re not brand new. How have you settled in?

Tim: It’s going well. I’ve been through one entire annual calendar cycle with the court now, plus the second half of the term that was in progress when I took over the role. I was fortunate to get to overlap for about a month with the long-serving prior commissioner, Rita Coyle DeMeules. That was invaluable training, and she left big shoes to try to fill.

Katie: I’ll bet! Were things still in pandemic mode when you began?

Tim: Yes, it was challenging to start in the pandemic. The Judicial Branch was still social distancing, so I never saw anyone without a mask. But I had been working exclusively from home while in private practice during the pandemic, so it was a nice change to work in-person at the Judicial Center every day. I appreciated the in-person interactions, and the people working for the Supreme Court are great.

Erica: Tell us about your professional life prior to becoming commissioner.

Tim: I went to Northwestern Law School, and immediately after graduating I was a law clerk to Judge Joel Flaum on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. That opened my eyes to appellate law and made me fall in love with appellate practice. I had summered at Dorsey & Whitney LLP, in part because my wife, Anne, is from the Twin Cities, so I came back to Dorsey in 2008 and joined their large trial group, which included appellate work.

Katie: Did you get to work on appeals early on in your career?

Tim: Actually yes, I was in the right place at the right time. Not long after I joined, Dorsey partner Steve Wells needed help working on a preliminary injunction motion in federal court in California. That case ended up going all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and all along the way I got to be involved in the briefing and help prep for and observe the oral arguments. We won 9-0 at the Supreme Court. It was an express preemption case involving the Federal Meat Inspection Act.

Erica: Wow, that’s amazing! What an experience. How could you top that?

Tim: That opportunity allowed me to move more into appellate work and consult internally on appeals within Dorsey. I got to work on a second U.S. Supreme Court case with Steve and Dorsey partner Juan Basombrio a few years later, involving the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Juan argued that case, which also culminated in a 9-0 decision in our favor at the Supreme Court.

Katie: Impressive. Do you miss being an advocate?

Tim Droske
Tim Droske

Tim: Sometimes, yes. But I continue to co-teach an Appellate Advocacy Clinic at the University of Minnesota Law School, where students write briefs and give oral arguments, and that allows me an outlet for continuing to focus on compelling advocacy.

Erica: What are your primary responsibilities as the Supreme Court commissioner?

Tim: Our office is made up of six assistant commissioners — who are attorneys — and one executive assistant. The eight of us make up the Commissioner’s Office. The Commissioner’s Office is there to be counsel for the court. We are there to serve all seven justices, the full court, and the institution. It can vary from chambers to chambers how the justices utilize the Commissioner’s Office, depending upon each justice’s needs. But as a general rule of thumb, our office is involved any time a case or filing enters or leaves the court. So we support the court as it considers petitions for review, and we’re involved as opinions or orders, or court rules, are about to “go out the door” and be issued by the court.

Katie: Do you have good camaraderie in your office?

Tim: Absolutely. My colleagues are the hardest working, most dedicated attorneys and staff I have known. They are humble, behind-the-scenes workers, most of whom have served the court for over a decade. They have great institutional knowledge and perspective, along with subject-matter expertise.

Erica: What’s the most surprising aspect of the role?

Tim: From my work on the MSBA Appellate Practice Section Council, I had some sense of the broad scope of the court’s rules-related responsibilities, but it wasn’t until I began serving as commissioner that I fully grasped the court’s role in managing the full judicial system of the state of Minnesota. The court not only enacts the appellate rules, but every set of rules in the court system. And it played a critical role navigating the judicial system through the pandemic, system-wide.

Katie: Those are great points. It can be easy to only focus upon the court’s docket, its oral arguments and decisions, and to forget all the other work the court and your office manages.

Tim: Yes, it’s a lot and it is challenging balancing all the different pieces. There is a never-ending stream of things to work through. We must provide our full attention to each matter and also ensure the timely administration of justice. But that’s also part of what is so enjoyable about the job. Intensity, variety, and change.

Erica: Such variety of work is rare to find.

Tim: Yes, part of what attracted me to appellate work early on was the opportunity to be a bit of a generalist in a legal system with increasing pressures upon practitioners to specialize. Being in the Commissioner’s Office, we get a full sense of general practice. The court handles criminal law, civil practice, and unique areas of direct jurisdiction that the court has, including workers’ compensation, tax, and attorney discipline. I’ve gotten to learn about many areas of law that I had not previously touched.

Katie: What would you say is the most fun aspect of being Supreme Court commissioner?

Tim: A few things come to mind. That variety piece. Constantly learning new things. It is also such a privilege to work for the Minnesota Supreme Court. It reflects the best of what the profession is: an institution made up of jurists with brilliant legal minds who also happen to be great human beings with a shared commitment to the fair and equal administration of justice. The members of the court are aware of the gravity of their work, but don’t let it replace civility and decency. That is what the court models and our office works hard to reflect.

Erica: What are some of the new developments at the court that practitioners should know about?

Tim: We have made technology upgrades to Courtroom 300 in the Judicial Center, where we typically hold the second week of oral argument each sitting, after being in the Capitol courtroom the first week. Courtroom 300 can now also support remote argument, so we can now relatively nimbly shift between in-person and remote arguments if a situation requires it.

Katie: Erica and I have been thinking and writing about attorney well-being and what attorneys should do if an advocate has a crisis of some sort just prior to a Supreme Court oral argument. Is the court accommodating?

Tim: Yes, the appellate courts try to be accommodating. Situations like last-minute emergencies and illnesses come up, and the court wants to keep everyone in the courtroom safe. Contacting the clerk’s office right away is the right way to bring such a situation to the court’s attention. The court has some different options. The argument could get rescheduled, either by moving to remote format within the near term or moving the argument back a month. The court also, of course, needs to balance the request with fairness to the other party, but when an unexpected life situation arises, we encourage people to bring it to the court’s attention. We would also encourage attorneys to notify the court of known scheduling conflicts early and often.  We try to accommodate known conflicts in preparing the calendar.

Erica: Anything else that advocates might want to know?

Tim: We have started summarizing the new issues on which review has been granted on the court’s website where the orders on PFRs are listed. We hope that will be a helpful tool. This adds to the issue summaries that our office already provides when each oral argument calendar is added to the court’s website.

Katie: Are you willing to share who you are as a human?

Tim: I’d love to! I live in Stillwater with my wife Anne and our seven children. We have one son and six daughters, ages 17 to 3. Evenings often involve my young daughters dancing to pop or Disney songs I’ll play on the piano, or family games of basketball, volleyball, or pickleball in our driveway. To stay active, I play basketball weekly with my son and others at our church’s school gym. And I just bought a fat-tire bike, so I am excited to try winter biking!

Erica: That all sounds awesome. Say, there are some fairly high-profile changes coming to the court. Chief Justice Gildea will be retiring, and we will have a new Chief Justice Hudson. This will bring some changes for your office too, we expect.

Tim: Yes, it has been incredible working with Chief Justice Gildea. I have learned so much from her. She is the consummate jurist, and has a balance of humility and decisiveness that has served her and the court well in her unique role as chief. She has done an incredible job managing the court and the branch. I will be sad to see her go. But the court and branch are in such good hands with Justice Hudson. She is equally remarkable and will bring her own strengths to the role of chief justice. She is also wonderful to work with. And we look forward to supporting the transition in of Justice-designee Procaccini as he settles into the court and are excited for him to join.

Katie: Thanks so much for making the time for this interview, with all that you juggle and at this time of transition. We have learned a lot!

Tim: It has been a pleasure chatting with you both.

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.

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