Judge David L. Knutson: Let voters decide how to pick judges

  • Article by: DAVID L. KNUTSON
  • Updated: March 16, 2010 - 6:31 PM

There's a strong case to be made for retention elections. The constitutional amendment introducing them should be on this November's ballot.

I disagree with Hennepin County District Judge Jack Nordby's recent commentary opposing retention elections ("Beware idea of judicial retention vote," March 11). Retention elections would be the solution to political and special-interest influence and money in judicial decisionmaking, thus preserving Minnesota's reputation for having a fair and impartial judiciary.

Under the proposed constitutional amendment for judicial retention elections (HF224/SF70), there would still be elections, but there would also be a requirement that information be provided to voters about the judges up for election. This is a huge improvement over the situation voters face now when they cast ballots in judicial races without any idea of the candidates' qualifications or job performance. Retention elections would provide voters with a simple decision about every judge on the ballot: whether to retain them on the bench or not.

Merit selection (through midterm appointments to fill judicial vacancies, involving well more than 90 percent of sitting judges) has created a state court system in Minnesota nationally recognized for both its competence and its impartiality. Merit selection, coupled with retention elections, is the best way to keep our state courts competent and impartial, as well as to maintain the public's trust and confidence in that impartiality. Judges need to continue to make decisions based on the law and the facts of each case, instead of worrying about how their ruling might affect their next campaign.

There is no foundation for the assertion that there is a racist element to the proposed constitutional amendment. In fact, our current merit selection system has actually improved diversity on Minnesota's state courts overall. Only three judges of color first attained the bench through a contested election; the other 22 judges of color sitting on Minnesota state courts (three on the statewide court of appeals and 19 among the various district courts) first rose to the bench via merit selection and gubernatorial appointment. Likewise, of 315 judges, there are 96 females, 89 percent of whom were appointed.

In addition, the Minnesota Commission on Judicial Selection -- which reviews and recommends to the governor individuals for appointment to the state court -- is itself a diverse group: Among the 49 members, 23 are nonlawyers, 24 are women and 10 are people of color.

The Coalition for Impartial Justice, composed of organizations supporting the retention election bill, includes a number of groups concerned with minority representation in our institutional systems, such as the courts. These groups support moving Minnesota to a retention election system. Current Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page, who was elected in a contested race, is a strong supporter of retention elections for judges as well. Why? Because the ground rules have changed due to a recent federal court decision that allows expanded fundraising and political campaigning in judicial races. That change affects how judges are elected and, as a result, the factors they will consider in making their decisions.

The constitutional amendment itself asks the voters to decide for themselves on the November ballot how judges should be selected -- through open elections (the current system) or retention elections (the proposed system). I trust the voters to decide which system for selecting and retaining judges is best for Minnesota. The disservice would be to prevent them from being able to cast that vote.

David L. Knutson, Burnsville, is a Dakota County district judge.

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