Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson bundled into his car on a recent bitter Sunday, set his satellite radio to a favorite old-time radio serial about a crusading insurance investigator, Johnny Dollar, and headed for Moorhead.

There, he would embark on his own crusade to save Minnesota's justice system as he knows it.

Just seven months into the job, Magnuson is facing off against the man who appointed him, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, over budget cuts.

The clash could be titanic.

Pawlenty proposes a budget, and the Legislature appropriates funds. But Magnuson decides how the court system's money gets spent.

If another budget cut of 5 percent or more comes down, Magnuson will recommend dramatic action -- shutting down conciliation court, cutting hours and suspending prosecution of 21 types of cases, including property damage, harassment, probate, and more than 1 million traffic and parking cases a year.

That last step could interrupt a $200 million flow to local governments.

Magnuson said that shutting down traffic cases is no small move, "but we're running out of choices here, and I will not compromise the prosecution of criminal cases."

What happens when truants, runaways, small-time shoplifters and trespassers realize they won't be brought to court? "That will be a real problem," Magnuson said calmly. "That will be the erosion of the rule of law. That will be the tear in the fabric of society that I'm trying to warn people about."

Other chief justices have not wielded their authority so forcefully. But Senate counsel Peter Wattson said Magnuson would be "perfectly within his rights to make those decisions so long as they're not arbitrary and capricious."

Pawlenty, so far, appears prepared to hold his ground. "The courts are not immune from the economic crisis the country is facing," he said. "So we'll try to adjust our budget to meet some of their concerns if need be, but they're also going to have to be more efficient."

Steady erosion

Magnuson says the courts have streamlined and now are starting to erode. Trial dates are pushed further out. Public counters are closed on some mornings. Jurors who once were paid $30 per day of duty now get $10 -- barely enough to cover parking in Minneapolis.

The courts, Magnuson said, have reached a tipping point where the focus must shift to preserving resources for criminal trials.

"We don't have the option of doing some things less well," he said. Under Pawlenty's recommendations, the courts, with a two-year budget of roughly $103 million in 2008-09, would get $6 million less in the 2010-11 budget period at a time when caseloads and expenses are rising.

Leading a charge

Other chief justices have had to deal with budget cuts, but Magnuson, 57, is the first in recent memory to push back in a very public way, sending a warning letter to Pawlenty about what might come and assembling a coalition of judges, sheriffs, police chiefs, county attorneys, public defenders, labor unions and even the League of Women Voters.

Local members of this Coalition to Preserve Minnesota's Justice System have flanked Magnuson at every stop he's made: Moorhead, Rochester, Mankato and Duluth.

"I'm proud of the way the Supreme Court has stepped up to talk about what's really going on here," said John Stuart, a public defender, on his way back from the Rochester leg.

In Anoka County, District Judge Sharon Hall frets that the day is coming soon when "people won't have their day in court. You'll have a tenant who trashes the apartment, and the landlord can't recover losses. A person who hires someone to pour a new concrete step and the guy never shows, those cases won't get heard."

Chisago County Court Administrator Kathleen Karnowski already does more with less. A staff of 13 processes 11,000 cases a year, spanning the spectrum from small claims to first-degree murder. When she gets really overloaded, nearby Isanti County sends help. "We're looking for every little economy," Karnowksi said.

Hennepin County District Chief Judge James Swenson said that small claims in Hennepin can take six months to be heard and that the time to enter a judgment has increased from two weeks to two and a half months.

Simple message

Why is the normally sedate judiciary going on a veritable barnstorming offensive?

"Sometimes the quiet, reasonable, dispassionate voice speaks loudly," Magnuson said. "And sometimes it gets lost. I'm trying to carry a pretty simple message here. Article One of the [state] Constitution says that the object of government is to ensure the protection and benefit of the people. You have to have a safe, law-abiding environment for the other parts of society to work."

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, a former legislator and Pawlenty's first public safety commissioner, said he has witnessed the deterioration firsthand and now sees the results of the cuts he helped implement in the earlier budget crisis of 2003.

"I'm as worried about the future of the judiciary right now as I've ever been," Stanek said.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said she's watching Magnuson's coalition with interest.

"I have to say I've never seen anything quite like this before from a Supreme Court chief justice." If Magnuson had not gone into law, she said admiringly, "he would have made a hell of a community organizer. This is classic community organizing technique."

Rep. Michael Paymar said he has met with Magnuson privately, as have most legislative leaders, and will hear from him publicly when he testifies before Paymar's Public Safety Finance Division this week.

"Some of the threats he's making are designed, how can I say this nicely, in a way to influence the Legislature," Paymar said. "I don't think we can react to that."

Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, said he fully expects Magnuson to follow through on proposals to cut back court functions and court functions could deteriorate. Nevertheless, he said, "I have to applaud him for what he's doing. He has an obligation to articulate the impact and despite his relationship with the governor, he's taking that seriously."

That relationship dates to Pawlenty's time as a young associate at the firm where Magnuson was already managing partner. But just because the tables have turned, Pawlenty shouldn't expect any deference from his old friend.

"I like Governor Pawlenty on a personal level," Magnuson said, smiling. "On a policy level? He has his agenda, and I have mine."

Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288