Last week, the Star Tribune reported that Michelle MacDonald, the Republican endorsed candidate for the Minnesota Supreme Court, was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving and resisting arrest in 2013. MacDonald’s trial is scheduled for September.
This is the first of at least two posts I will publish this week about MacDonald’s endorsement by the Republican Party of Minnesota for the Minnesota Supreme Court.
As I have disclosed before, in January 2013, I was involved in a very serious car accident caused by my poor decision to drink & drive. I pled guilty to drinking and driving and for the last year, I have volunteered every month to speak to groups about the dangers of drinking and driving.
I have a strong opinion on the issues involving MacDonald’s arrest for suspicion of drunk driving and I will have another post later week on the subject.
Since news of MacDonald’s arrest was first reported, I have talked with Republicans about the process by which she became the Republican endorsed candidate for the Minnesota Supreme Court.
The Republican Party of Minnesota's endorsement of MacDonald has created a public relations mess and there is plenty of blame to go around.
This is MacDonald’s first run for public office. Since declaring her intentions to seek the Republican Party of Minnesota’s endorsement for the Minnesota Supreme Court, she did everything required by the party to receive the endorsement.
MacDonald’s candidacy should have raised numerous red flags. But in a rush to endorse a judicial candidate, the warning signs were missed and now people are pointing fingers.
Keith Downey, chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota told the Star Tribune last week, "none of us, including the convention delegates, were aware of this information about the candidate."
Contrary to the statements made by Downey, MacDonald’s arrest was known by numerous Republicans, including the person appointed by Downey to oversee the committee to determine if the convention should endorse a judicial candidate – Doug Seaton.
As the former Deputy Chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota, I will state without hesitation that MacDonald’s endorsement proves the current party process of endorsing candidates is fundamentally flawed and in desperate need of reform.
The fact that Downey, the top elected official of the Republican Party of Minnesota, claims he was unaware that a candidate with a pending criminal trial was endorsed for the Minnesota Supreme Court, is the best evidence I can point to that Republicans need a new process to select candidates for office.
Downey was also incorrect when he told the Star Tribune that the endorsement of MacDonald came "at the last minute" of the convention. The printed agenda of the convention distributed by the Republican Party of Minnesota lists "Judicial Elections Committee Report" as part of the scheduled events of the convention.
The week before the state convention, MacDonald participated in a conference call for approximately 45 minutes with Republicans interested in endorsing a judicial candidate.
One day before the start of the Republican Party of Minnesota’s State Convention, MacDonald sent an email to Republican activists announcing she would seek the Republican endorsement to run against Minnesota Supreme Court Justice David L. Lillehaug.
MacDonald’s introductory email, detailing her biography, legal experience and qualifications to run for the Minnesota Supreme Court, contained just 171 words.
In her email, MacDonald stated she had the "unique distinction" of being able to appear before the United States Supreme Court and had previously “been a small claims court Judge” for 15 years.
The Republican Party of Minnesota State Convention was being held in Rochester and MacDonald arrived the evening before the official start of the convention. The political process was new to MacDonald and she wanted to introduce herself to activists who she hoped would ultimately decide to endorse her candidacy for the Minnesota Supreme Court.
The Republican Party of Minnesota has a specific committee, the Judicial Election Committee, which is tasked with the responsibility to report to the state convention if they recommend a judicial candidate be considered for endorsement. Seaton is the chair of this committee.
Seaton convened a meeting of the Judicial Election Committee at approximately 9:00 AM, Friday, May 30, at the Republican state convention. MacDonald was asked to appear before the committee so members could conduct a formal interview.
This was MacDonald’s only meeting with the committee before they would determine if they would recommend she be endorsed by the full convention to run for the Minnesota Supreme Court.
In an unusual move, MacDonald openly video recorded her interview with the Judicial Election Committee. I was provided MacDonald’s recording and have reviewed the video for this post.
Seaton began the meeting by explaining the committee was scheduled to deliver a report to the convention later that day and it would be up to the convention if they wished to endorse a judicial candidate. (The report of the Judicial Election Committee was eventually delayed to Saturday afternoon, due to numerous ballots being conducted for the Republican endorsement for U.S. Senate.)
Seaton then presented MacDonald with a large file of paperwork. The file contained information about MacDonald’s law firm, legal work and documents about MacDonald being cited for failure to transfer registration of a watercraft in 2005 and a minor traffic offense in 2006.
The documents also contained information about a bizarre incident in 2013 where MacDonald, who was representing a client in court, was removed from the courtroom by deputies and placed in a cell.
According to the documents, MacDonald was handcuffed, placed in wheel chair and wheeled back into the courtroom by a deputy. The hearing resumed and MacDonald continued to represent her client, but she was in a wheel chair and handcuffed. MacDonald was jailed for multiple days, but was eventually released without being charged.
MacDonald paged through the materials and complimented Seaton for his diligence, referring to the documents as "good research" adding, "that package represents me well." After passing the documents to other members of the committee to review, MacDonald again thanked Seaton for his work in preparing the materials.
But while MacDonald was initially reviewing the documents from Seaton, members of the committee said they had not received the documents. Seaton had sent the documents the previous afternoon at 4:22 PM to members of the committee. But many members of the committee had not received Seaton's email or were away from their computers and at the convention.
Seaton also said that because of the size of the files attached to his email, "some people’s emails would not accept all of this, so some things bounced back, which is the state of…your computers." Seaton provided only one copy of the court documents for the entire committee to share and review during the meeting.
In the committee meeting, MacDonald was asked why she was running for the Minnesota Supreme Court and she responded by saying "because I’ve had aspirations to be a judge for years." She added that her "highest aspiration" was "to be a judge in the United State Supreme Court of America."
Seaton clearly had concerns about MacDonald's candidacy for the Minnesota Supreme Court and asked MacDonald a series of direct and pointed questions.
My concern is that we’re going to have a situation where the party’s endorsement process is going to be held up to ridicule and [gesturing to MacDonald] you’re going to be held up to ridicule and attacked in a campaign as not having judicial [comportment] and not being neutral and being a little bit of a wild woman – whatever, however, people would style this.
How on Earth can a person who is a zealous advocate, maybe pushing the line, be suitable for a judicial position? And how is that going to reflect on the party’s endorsement process, the other statewide candidates…is that going to be a problem? How are you going to respond to it?
MacDonald didn't directly answer Seaton's question, but instead provided an explanation of her version of the incident where she was handcuffed and placed in a wheelchair in the courtroom.
Seaton's question was valid and foretold the eventual media scrutiny that has since followed MacDonald's endorsement.
During her interview, MacDonald's pending legal issues involving her arrest on suspicion of drunk driving were also discussed by the committee. MacDonald openly explained her version of events leading to the arrest, some of which conflict with available court documents (more on this in my follow-up post).
The committee finished with their interview of MacDonald and she was excused so they could debate if MacDonald would be recommended for endorsement. The committee eventually voted, although not unanimously, to recommend that MacDonald be considered for endorsement by the full convention.
MacDonald followed the process established by the Republican Party of Minnesota to endorse a judicial candidate. The committee met only once with MacDonald and she met the requirements established by the party to be considered for endorsement.
The following day, Saturday, May 31, Seaton presented the report from the Judicial Election Committee. Seaton announced the committee had interviewed MacDonald and recommended the Republican Party of Minnesota endorse her to run for the Minnesota Supreme Court.
During his report to the convention, Seaton made no mention of the concerns he expressed during the Judicial Election Committee the previous day about MacDonald’s candidacy. Nor did Seaton exercise his right as a seated delegate to the convention to voice his opposition to MacDonald’s endorsement
But after giving just one speech, which contained approximately 400 words, nearly 2000 delegates at the convention voted to endorse MacDonald as the Republican candidate for the Minnesota Supreme Court. From start to finish, Republicans spent less than 30 minutes to endorse a candidate to serve on the Minnesota Supreme Court.
On June 2, two days after the Republican Party of Minnesota endorsed MacDonald for the Minnesota Supreme Court, Downey sent an email to members of the Judicial Elections Committee, thanking them for their work at the convention.
Downey wrote, "As you know, I fully support our platform position on the election of Judges and I respect the work of the Judicial Districts and your convention committee immensely."
Both Seaton and Downey were contacted for comment on this post and neither responded to requests for comments.
Ayrlahn Johnson, a member of the Judicial Election Committee who voted for MacDonald to be recommended for endorsement by the convention, strongly supports MacDonald. Johnson said, "I support Michelle MacDonald because of the moxie she has demonstrated in trying to hold judges accountable and working to keep families out of court instead of allowing them to be abused by the current system.”
For her part, MacDonald is committed to staying in the race for the Minnesota Supreme Court, saying, "yes, this is one of my aspirations." MacDonald described her experience at the Republican Party of Minnesota's state convention as "an awesome process."
Former Gov. Al Quie, who serves on the board of the Coalition for Impartial Justice and is opposed to partisan judicial endorsements, said MacDonald’s endorsement "proves to me that a party and a convention endorsing a person for a judgeship is absolutely wrong"
Quie added, "Well I hope that never again will the Republican Party ever engage in endorsing a judicial candidate, never again and I hope this will be a lesson to them."
Picture source: Republican Party of Minnesota