Minnesota judicial elections have lately tended to stir more debate about how we select judges in this state than about the comparative qualifications of incumbents and challengers.
That process has evolved here into what's often called a hybrid system. Most judges retire during their terms, triggering the governor's constitutional power to fill vacancies on the bench by appointment. Only later, as incumbents, do most judges face the voters, often unopposed.
Critics of this arrangement -- from whose ranks come many challengers to appellate court judges -- say it undermines the people's right to elect their judges. Its defenders say the appointment process allows more thorough and knowledgeable screening of candidates than voters can possibly undertake.
This Editorial Board has long favored appointments, informed by expert recommendations, for the initial selection and elevation of judges, believing that it is more likely than wide-open elections to produce well-qualified jurists committed to the impartial application of the law. Minnesota would not be well-served by the sort of big spending campaigns, fueled by partisan and ideological loyalties, that are seen in some other states, shaking confidence in the fairness of their legal systems.
Minnesotans should note well that state courts repeatedly have been forced to settle sizzling political controversies in recent years -- most recently the voter ID amendment disputes, but also two statewide recounts, one government shutdown and the "unallotment" budget battle. The court system has acquitted itself ably each time.
Three statewide Supreme Court contests on this year's ballot demonstrate the effectiveness of Minnesota's approach. The incumbents, all appointed by former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, have clearly superior qualifications to their challengers and deserve reelection to six-year terms.
*Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, 51, joined the high court in 2006 after a legal career highlighted by seven years with a private Washington, D.C., firm and 11 years as associate general counsel for the University of Minnesota. She has established herself as thoughtful and thorough in her legal reasoning and writing, and she has enthusiasm for the special and crucial role of a chief justice as the top administrator and principle advocate for the state's entire court system. Upgrading and unifying the judiciary's information technology system is a key goal, she says.
Challenger Dan Griffith, 50, is a private-practice lawyer in International Falls. He is an ardent advocate for judicial elections and says courts must enforce constitutional boundaries on government's size and scope. But his qualifications for the high court do not match Gildea's.
*Justice Barry Anderson, 58, was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2004 after six years on the state Court of Appeals and two decades in private practice, much of it in Greater Minnesota. His easygoing demeanor and cautious, restrained philosophy of judging serve the court well, and were on display in his capable service on the State Canvassing Board during the tense 2008 U.S. Senate recount.
Dean Barkley, 62, a lawyer who has pursued a varied career, is best known for his political roles as, among other things, a founder of Minnesota's Independence Party, planning director under Gov. Jesse Ventura, and Ventura's choice to finish the final weeks of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone's term in 2002. Barkley, who favors an elected judiciary, is concerned that Minnesota's high court has become sorted into ideological blocs. A close look at the court's rulings suggests that worry is overdrawn. Barkley's wide-ranging background and expansive style, meanwhile, seem less of an ideal fit for the high court than the incumbent's.
*Justice David Stras, 38, a former University of Minnesota law professor, was appointed in 2010. Initial controversy was stirred by his links to conservative legal circles, including his being a former clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. His youth was also notable. Yet Stras has emerged on the court as independent and persuasive. His energy and enthusiasm for the intellectual challenge of judging is infectious.
Tim Tingelstad, 52, a district magistrate in Bemidji, is another sincere advocate for elections over appointments in choosing judges. He also emphasizes his religious faith as informing his world view, but notes that this reinforces for him the duty of a judge to submit to the will of the people.
Stras adds deeper and more nuanced thinking to the court.