Speaking outside the court for the first time since he announced his resignation, Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson said Tuesday that the state's justice system is strained nearly to the point of breaking down.

"We are running a really big engine with almost no oil in the crankcase, and things are going to start to break down if we get a significant cut in this legislative session," said Magnuson, who made it known last week that he will leave the bench in June.

Facing nearly $15 million in proposed budget cuts, Magnuson envisions more backlogs and delays, more drug court closings, public-counter closings and "delaying justice to Minnesota citizens."

Magnuson's two years on the bench have been marked by a constant fight for money. As the head of the state's judiciary, he led an extraordinary effort to push back against cuts proposed by the man who appointed him -- Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Early in his term as chief, Magnuson pulled together a coalition of sheriffs, county officials, prosecutors, public defenders and traveled the state to make his most important case -- that the state's justice system couldn't withstand deep cuts and still thrive.

Now he says, the judiciary is "struggling" and if another round of cuts proposed by Pawlenty is imposed, the system may have to look at simply delivering fewer services.

"We may have to look at changing what we are doing, not just how we're doing it," Magnuson said. "And I'd hate to see that."

As recently as last month Magnuson expressed disappointment over another Pawlenty budget that proposed cuts to courts and public defenders. But he said he has nothing but respect for the Republican governor.

His budget battles, he said, have been frustrating but also invigorating, allowing him to continue his advocacy from the bench.

He said that while he and Pawlenty have had differences, "I think he's a wonderful human being and a great leader, and we may not agree on everything but we respect each other."

'Personal reasons' reiterated

Magnuson noted that his frustration over funding is unrelated to his departure from the high court and said on Tuesday, as he did in a statement last week, that he is resigning for personal reasons.

Speaking to reporters before a Freedom of Information Day event, Magnuson said he hasn't talked to the governor since he announced he'd leave the court this summer, but would be willing to offer Pawlenty advice about his successor.

"I think I would tell him the things that I found most challenging and the things that my successor would have to pay a lot of attention to," Magnuson said.

But, he added, he would not share names. "I don't presume to give him any recommendations as to who it might be," Magnuson said. "It's not my job."

The justice was similarly tight-lipped about a massive case that still is part of his job. On Monday, the court heard the governor's appeal of a lawsuit that could alter the state's budget and redefine the balance of power between the Legislature and the governor.

The decision on whether Pawlenty had the authority to make emergency budget cuts known as unallotments is pending and Magnuson gave no clues on when it would come out.

"The opinion will be filed when the opinion's ready," Magnuson said. "The process that we use is not susceptible to any particular schedule. [If] I write a draft opinion in a case, it goes to another justice, she looks at it when she feels comfortable passing it on, it goes on. So, it's not a process that you can time in any way."

Magnuson also reflected on the Minnesota U.S. Senate recount of 2008. He served on the five-member canvassing board that handled the recount.

He said he was pleased that it was an open and transparent process. That openness, he said, worked "spectacularly well" and helped promote whatever trust there was in the highly scrutinized process. The only business the members handled behind closed doors was deciding what kind of cookies they would eat for a snack, he joked.

Thrown onto the canvass

The justice said he hadn't known what kind of job he was undertaking when he agreed to be on the canvassing board. In fact, his assistant told him, months before the election, that board duties were "no big deal."

"Who knew? Who could have thought?" Magnuson said. "It was, to me, a fascinating process."

Magnuson does know the timing of his departure. His last day on the bench will be June 30.

After that, he said, he plans to return to Minneapolis' Briggs and Morgan law firm, where he was a shareholder before joining the court.

He'll return to private practice with some lessons learned -- he said he has a new appreciation for attorneys who write concise briefs and get to the point in their oral arguments -- and some other plans, too.

"Fishing is a high priority for me," Magnuson said.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164