Judge George McGunnigle was sworn in to the Fourth Judicial District Court bench in early December 2000, along with Kathryn Quaintance and Warren Sagstuen. Shortly before his investiture, he was excited and honored at the prospect of serving as a judge. The possibility of serving on the bench has been nagging in the back of his mind ever since he served as a military judge in the Navy JAG, as he feels the judiciary is the highest calling of our profession. "The justice system and the profession have been very good to me, have given me a good professional life," he says, and he wants "to give back to the judicial system and the profession."
Judge McGunnigle grew up in Hartford, Conn. He came from a family of teachers and was an English major at Boston College He explains that there were not a lot of "natural career moves" for an English major. He felt at the time that he could either go on to graduate school in English studies or go to law school. Law school seemed interesting. He won a full academic scholarship to Georgetown, so law school it was. He later obtained an LL. M. at George Washington University, where he was a teaching fellow. He also was associated with that law school’s Institute of Law, Psychiatry, and Criminology when the institute was doing a broad empirical study on the mentally disabled and the law. Judge McGunnigle’s projects included doing legal and empirical research for the institute, such as interviewing prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and other people involved in the criminal justice system. His own master’s thesis was on the mentally disabled and criminal law.
Judge McGunnigle’s first post-law school position consisted of a job in the Naval JAG corps, which he notes was a "terrific experience." He says the greatest thing that the military did for him as a lawyer was "to put me in the courtroom and let me learn how to try cases." He was stationed for two years in Rhode Island, where he served as a prosecutor, defense attorney, and military judge. During his third year, while stationed at the Navy Appellate Defense Activity in Washington, D.C., he did criminal appellate defense work, representing sailors and marines who had been convicted of serious crimes.
During his naval service Judge McGunnigle experienced what he now remembers as his proudest moment as an attorney. He was representing a young seaman convicted of a violent attack aboard ship. Judge McGunnigle believed the man was innocent. In part because of his previous training in graduate school, he recognized that the seaman was mentally disabled and that this disability, combined with his intoxication, rendered him unable to form the requisite intent to perform the assault. Judge McGunnigle’s defense resulted in non-guilty verdict for the sailor, who, the judge remembers, had to ask him what "not guilty" meant. Judge McGunnigle told him it meant that he was free. The sailor then asked to borrow a dime so that he could call his mother and give her the good news. Later, the judge received a letter from the young man’s mother, thanking him profusely for the work he had done for her son. She had taped a dime to the letter, to pay the judge back for the money he had lent her son to call her. "That letter and that dime," Judge McGunnigle states, "were a wonderful fee."
Lowell Noteboom, current president of Leonard Street and Deinard, was stationed with the judge during his career with JAG. Judge McGunnigle remembers that they were often co-counsel, but just as often acted as adversaries. They became good friends. Noteboom came to Minnesota and Leonard Street and Deinard when he left the Navy, and shortly thereafter called Judge McGunnigle and urged him to apply for an associate position at the firm. In 1972, Judge McGunnigle and his wife came to Minnesota, enjoyed it and Leonard Street and Deinard, and decided to stay.
At Leonard Street and Deinard, Judge McGunnigle concentrated primarily on business litigation, including class action and securities cases. Some of his recent clients in major litigation included Piper Jaffray, Microsoft Corporation, American Express, Burger King Corporation, St. Jude Medical Inc., and Edina Realty. He recently acted as an arbitrator and a mediator in business cases, as well, and has been a panelist and moderator in several training videos on litigation skills and on mediation and ADR. He says his most significant litigation was probably in 1994-1999, when he defended Piper Jaffray in the many cases that arose out of the decline in the value of funds managed by Piper as a result of the 1994 crash in the fixed-income market.
Judge McGunnigle thinks that, on the bench, what he will miss most is the "collegiality and comradery that comes when one is with a terrific law firm and a terrific group of people." He also believes he will miss the comradery among trial lawyers, those "times when my adversary and I would fight like hell in the
courtroom but would still be able to go out and have a beer when it’s all over." On the other hand, he won’t miss filling out time sheets.
He hopes to run his courtroom in the same manner as he sees U.S. District Judge David Doty run his. In Judge Doty’s courtroom, Judge McGunnigle notes, "There’s never any doubt about who’s in charge, and yet his demeanor is such that the courtroom is as relaxed as a courtroom can be." Judge McGunnigle admires judges, like Judge Doty and Judge Peter Albrecht, who are considerate of all who appear before them in the courtroom, and he hopes to create a similar atmosphere in his own courtroom. He says attorneys who enter his courtroom should expect "someone who is open-minded, who has a pretty good sense of humor, and who has great respect and affection for trial lawyers." He agrees with what he recalls as an often-expressed sentiment of Judge Doty: "I actually like lawyers."
Judge McGunnigle is concerned that the practice of law has become less civil, that the times where adversaries would get together as friends after fighting a hard case are becoming more and more rare. He says that while lawyers tend to focus on incivility in the profession, he thinks that it may be a reflection of our larger culture, that people in general are becoming less civil and more intolerant of each other. In his own courtroom, he hopes to improve the situation as much as he can by treating everyone with respect and courtesy and by insisting that everyone do the same on his or her part.
Judge McGunnigle feels that he, as a district court judge, is accountable "to the community, which, through its elected official, the governor, has asked me to help resolve their disputes, and, if they can’t be resolved, to decide them." As befitting an English major, the judge is a voracious reader. When he was being interviewed for this profile, the judge was reading Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Sir Thomas More, who is a hero of his. He says he intends to fulfill his oath of office by conducting himself in the courtroom in the manner expressed in a Sir Thomas More line from Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons: