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Emily Welker, Published June 04 2013

Fargo judge leaves lasting impression in rulings, family of lawyers

FARGO – For more than a decade, Frank Magill’s decisions as an active 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge helped shape lives in seven states.

But for all that power, the one thing his family wants you to know most about him might surprise you.

“He was very easygoing, very laid back,” his wife, Mary Magill ,said of her husband, who died Sunday at age 86 at Touchmark retirement community in Fargo after a battle with Alzheimer’s. “He was a nice all-around guy.”

Magill was appointed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, a day Mary Magill still recalls.

“Frank had taken the day off work for the flu,” she said, and the president called her husband at home to ask him a question.

“He [the president] said, ‘I have a paper here on my desk – do I have your permission to sign it?’… that was the piece of paper appointing him to the appeals court.”

In giving the president “permission” to appoint him, Magill was leaving a three-decade-long career with Fargo law firm Nilles, Hansen and Davies, work Mary Magill said, he enjoyed. At first, the change might even have been hard on him, she said.

Even though Frank Magill enjoyed the work itself, “He was leaving this big law firm, it was like Grand Central Station in there” for the solitude of his little private office with the appeals court, she said.

Magill heard cases for 11 years as an active member of the court, including the 1991 appeals court ruling that determined cross-burning was not protected under the First Amendment.

His time on the court coincided with its 1993 ruling that awarded the U.S. government custody of the largest Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil ever discovered, a case Magill’s wife said stuck with him for a long time.

He was also on the court for its 1996 ruling that struck down a South Dakota law requiring parents to be notified before their minor daughters could get abortions.

Their son Frank, who is a judge in Hennepin County, said the few death penalty cases his father sat in on were ones he took seriously. Magill was not opposed to capital punishment on principle. “I think he felt anyone who had done something that would allow them to be considered for it was guilty of something very serious,” said his widow.

Greg Selbo, Magill’s former colleague at Nilles Law Firm, remembers the serious side of Magill. Magill had already been with the firm for 24 years when Selbo joined, and he looked up to him.

“Frank was always very proper. Dressed well, sort of dapper, I guess,” Selbo said. “[Partner] Steve Plambeck called him a lawyer’s lawyer, really knew the law, which was part of what made Magill such a good fit for the higher court,” Selbo said.

His predecessor on the U.S. Court of Appeals, Judge Myron Bright, said in a statement, “Frank Magill … was a good friend. His service on the federal court was very commendable. He was a kind and good person.”

Magill’s legal legacy wasn’t only passed on in his rulings. He was the father of six children, three of whom became attorneys, including daughter Mary Elizabeth, now the dean of Stanford Law School. Before that, she clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and taught at her alma mater, the University of Virginia, and at Harvard Law School.

Until his illness became too advanced, Magill and his wife spent time after active judicial duty traveling the country to sit on courts in Philadelphia, New York, and Richmond, Va., which is the prerogative of judges who achieve senior status.

Mary Magill said her husband’s illness forced him to abandon this activity, sometime in 2008 or 2009.

Boulger Funeral Home is handling funeral arrangements set for next Tuesday.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541