It wasn't long after John Simonett joined the Minnesota Supreme Court that the words "Simonett Opinion" began to mean something.
It was a judgment, the state's legal community quickly learned, that wasn't just well-crafted from a lawyerly standpoint, but also told a story. In most cases, it could be understood even by non-lawyers.
"He really cared about words," said longtime friend and colleague Clifford Greene, a partner in the Minneapolis law firm Greene Espel. "You could know the opinion was written by John Simonett simply by reading the first two sentences because they were so well-crafted."
Simonett, 87, who concluded more than 40 years of legal service with 13 years as an associate justice on the state's high court, died Thursday, surrounded by family. He was known as well for his classic bow tie and self-deprecating sense of humor as for his practical analysis of the law.
Raised in Le Center, Minn., he attended St. John's University and met his future wife, Doris, who attended the College of St. Benedict. He graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School.
Simonett practiced law in Little Falls, Minn., for nearly three decades before he was appointed by Gov. Al Quie to the state's Supreme Court in 1980.
Just as influential as his time on the bench, Greene said, was his time in Little Falls, where he practiced all facets of law, from drafting wills to jury trials over land disputes. He was from a generation of lawyers who prided themselves on being generalists, Greene said.
In 1963, he wrote a satirical essay called "The Common Law of Morrison County," where he opined upon imaginary unwritten rules, such as that no will should be signed with a ballpoint pen and executed on a Sunday.
"This will mean going to see a lawyer and paying money, which might have otherwise been used for worthwhile pursuits, to get the mess straightened out," he wrote.
Simonett took seriously his role as an attorney and jurist. He wrote 423 opinions, including one in 1990 that upheld the state's fetal homicide law in the shooting death of a woman and her 28-day-old fetus. In 1993, he authored an opinion that deemed unconstitutional reduced welfare benefits for newer Minnesota residents.
He delivered a seminal quote during the 1985 case of an attorney accused of misconduct in advertising:
"Simply because free speech allows us to make fools of ourselves is no reason we should avail ourselves of the opportunity."
Simonett and his wife had six children. Daughter Anne Simonett briefly served as the first woman chief judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals before she died of a brain tumor in 1995 at age 42. Daughter Martha Simonett is a Dakota County district judge.
After he retired from the court in 1994, Simonett taught at the U's Law School and practiced at Greene Espel until 2007.
Simonett was a role model for aspiring lawyers at the university, said Prof. Robert Stein. Though Simonett was humble, he's worthy of more than modest praise, he said.
"He was erudite, a wordsmith, and his opinions were models of eloquence," Stein said.
He is survived by his wife, Doris, children and grandchildren. Services will be held at 1 p.m., Aug. 6 at the Lumen Christi Catholic Church, 2055 Bohland Av., St. Paul.
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921