Decisions handed down decades ago are everything at the Minnesota Supreme Court, but three current justices do not want to cite the precedent of former Justice William Christianson.
Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea and Associate Justices G. Barry Anderson and David Stras will be on the ballot Nov. 6, seeking six-year terms on the state's highest court.
Christianson was the last Supreme Court justice to lose a seat on the court via election. That was in 1946.
Supreme Court justices, who run with the word "incumbent" under their names on the ballot, as all jurists do, have won every re-election battle for the past 66 years.
"What we have in fact is an appointment system where the voter simply ratifies it," said retired lawyer Douglas Hedin of south Minneapolis, who chronicled all Supreme Court elections since statehood for the Minnesota Legal History Project, www.startribune.com/a1736.
Because most justices leave office during their terms, the governor gets to appoint a successor, who must stand for election after completing the unfinished term. Gildea, Anderson and Stras got their seats via appointment by former Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Gildea, appointed to the court in 2006 and named chief in 2010, faces lawyer Dan Griffith of International Falls. Anderson, appointed in 2004, faces Dean Barkley, a lawyer, third-party activist, associate of former Gov. Jesse Ventura and interim U.S. senator after the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone. Stras, appointed by Pawlenty in 2010, faces Tim Tingelstad, a lawyer and magistrate from Bemidji.
The Hennepin County Bar Association recommended the incumbents by large margins in a plebiscite of its members, which is about as close as a judicial race gets to a full-fledged political campaign.
George Soule, who helped two governors in the vetting of judicial candidates and now works on Supreme Court races -- including on the Stras and Anderson campaigns this year -- said the justices generally rely on Internet advertising, lawn signs and perhaps some billboards and radio to get their name before the people. He said that even though a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowed judges to take positions on disputed political and legal issues in their campaigns, that has not been the practice in Minnesota.
"I think all justices take elections very, very seriously," added Peter Knapp, a law professor and Supreme Court watcher at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. "But campaigning for a judicial office is like trying to play piano with oven mitts on."
Perhaps Mitchell, the school's namesake, should have removed the mitts. He was renowned for the quality of his Supreme Court opinions but was defeated at the polls in 1898.
But a loss can open a door to the wider world. Christianson was picked by Gen. Lucius Clay, U.S. Army Commander in Europe after World War II, to serve as a judge at the war-crimes trials in Nuremberg, Germany. He was on tribunals that convicted a German industrialist and top generals, and helped establish international law as an enforceable principle in world affairs.