The camera crews were out in force last August 23, when Kathleen Soliah legally became Sara Jane Olson. Not that there was much to report: The accused Symbionese Liberation Army fugitive stood before a Ramsey County District Court referee and explained that she wanted to legally change her name to the alias she had used for more than two decades. After a few minutes of testimony, referee Charles Williams Jr. signed off on the name change, making it legal.
Or so he thought.
Williams was performing his duties in accordance with a 1995 Ramsey County guideline allowing referees to sign off on relatively simple cases--things like housing-court-related motions, name changes, default judgments, and minor settlements--without taking their cases to a district court judge for review. But in an opinion filed last month, the Minnesota Court of Appeals declared that rule invalid. (Referees are employed in the Ramsey and Hennepin county courthouses, the state's busiest, to lighten the dockets of regular judges; they must have passed the bar exam and have at least five years of experience in the legal profession).
The appeals court stumbled over the procedural matter while deliberating on whether a court order from Alabama could be enforced in Minnesota even though one of the parties involved had never been in that state. The order had been filed in Ramsey County through a referee without a judge's signature--and that, the court said, made it invalid.
With that ruling, the appellate judges wiped out thousands of other decisions, says Peter Erlinder, a professor at St. Paul's William Mitchell College of Law and one of the attorneys in the appellate case. "There are cases involving name changes where the names didn't get changed, or monies were taken from people without a judgment allowing that to occur," Erlinder explains. "Every lawyer that's had one of these cases in Ramsey County in the last five years--and every litigant--needs to understand the significance of this."
In fact, up to 8,000 cases heard by referees over the past four years might have been improperly processed, estimates Mike Moriarity, Ramsey County's civil court administrator. But he stresses that the vast majority of cases heard by referees are uncontested, which means that few people are likely to raise a ruckus about the signatures. "A lot of people have already done everything they need to do with the [referee's] order," Moriarity insists. "Unless someone's going to challenge it, it's just going to sit there."
Still, he says, court officials are rushing to have judges cosign at least some of the referees' orders--including Soliah's name change--to make them legal. And they are preparing for complaints from a small number of people who may be financially affected by the mixup: In some cases, Moriarity explains, referees award petitioners money, which may collect interest from the date of the order. With orders now considered invalid until a judge co-signs them, it's likely that "the interest that would have accrued [is] lost," Moriarity says.
The 1995 Ramsey County rule does not state the reasoning behind the decision to let referees sign off on orders. (In Hennepin County, judges always have been required to approve referee decisions, says court manager Larry Dease.) Moriarity, who wasn't working in civil court at the time, says it appears that the general idea was to streamline the judicial process: Petitioners could have their name change heard, approved, and signed in time to hit, say, the driver's license office. "You could do everything the morning or afternoon you were there," Moriarity says.
Now that Ramsey County has returned to the old procedure--Chief Judge Lawrence Cohen has already revised the standing order to require judicial signatures on each decision a referee makes--the system is likely to slow down again. And the ripple effect, Moriarity says, will probably be felt throughout the courthouse: "It does put a greater burden on judges. It takes them away from more substantial cases."
That fact alone is enough to warrant further review of the situation, contends Cohen, who plans to meet with other court officials to figure out whether the referee process can be simplified. "If we were to fully read each and every file and not place our trust in our referees, our workload would be greatly increased," he says. "Our putting our signature on, in many cases, is nothing more than an administrative act. It's actually a silly thing."