A proposal to avoid partisan, big-money fights for judicial seats by changing the way judges achieve and keep their offices moved ahead on a mixed voice vote at the Legislature Wednesday.

The Senate Subcommittee on Elections approved the measure and sent it to the full Rules Committee.

Sponsored by Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, the bill proposes an amendment to the state constitution that would go to voters in November. It would replace the current system, in which judges run for re-election with the word "incumbent" by their names, with one that depends on an appointed merit commission and yes-or-no "retention" elections with no opponent on the ballot.

Rest and supporters of the bill, including former Supreme Court Justice Eric Magnuson, presented the amendment as a way of avoiding partisan judicial elections that require judges to commit on issues that may later come before them. In Wisconsin and Michigan, they said, those races have attracted significant campaign contributions.

"You folks run on platforms," Magnuson told the legislators. "A judge can't run on a platform. That's antithetical to what a judge does. A judge decides cases based on the law and fact in front of him or her."

Sarah Walker, president of the Coalition for Impartial Justice, also argued in support of the bill. "All you have to do is look around the country .... to see that high-cost partisan elections are sweeping the country, and it's not far off in Minnesota."

Currently, most judges do come into office by gubernatorial appointment, but there are rare elections for open seats without an appointee. Once in office, judges stand for re-election and can be challenged by opponents. Most run unopposed.

Opponents of the measure including Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, the powerful anti-abortion organization, and others who argued that the measure denied voters the right to freely choose their own judges.

"We oppose the premise that citizens aren't qualified to vote for judges," said Andrea Rau of the MCCL. We believe citizens have the right to vote for a particular judicial candidate, not just against them."

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, a member of the subcommittee, said voters "will have their vote taken away." He said empowering a commission to evaluate judges and recommend replacements means the people's right to select judges would be given to "political appointees."

"I don't see the public pounding our doors for this," Limmer said.

Rest's proposed amendment is now queued up in the Senate Rules Committee along with a proposed amendment that would make it harder for the Legislature to submit future constitutional amendments to voters. The House, which is up for re-election in November, has shown less interest in putting amendments on the ballot this year.

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