Keep political parties out of judicial elections

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 26, 2014 - 6:47 PM

GOP should have avoided the MacDonald sideshow.

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Supreme Court candidate Michelle MacDonald videorecorded a dispute over her presence at the Republican Party booth on Aug. 21 at the Minnesota State Fair.

Photo: Glen Stubbe • Star Tribune,

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The entertainment value of the Michelle MacDonald candidacy has been high of late for Minnesotans other than the Republican state convention delegates who endorsed her for the state Supreme Court three months ago.

That was before the GOP faithful knew that MacDonald, a Twin Cities family law attorney, had been arrested last year in Dakota County for suspicion of drunken driving and resisting arrest. Her case is scheduled to go to trial next month.

In addition, since receiving Republican blessing on May 31 to challenge Associate Justice David Lillehaug in the Nov. 4 election, MacDonald was ticketed in Wright County for driving in violation of the terms of her limited license.

Last week, she turned her candidacy into a State Fair attraction. She was ejected from the GOP booth at the fair on Thursday, vowing to return — inviting a media watch on the premises. On Friday, MacDonald told reporters that she had been contacted by high-level party officials who urged her to end her candidacy, which she to date has refused to do.

The sideshow has included watching GOP luminaries squirm as they attempt to distance themselves from MacDonald without casting aspersions on the party endorsement process that boosted her candidacy. State Sen. Scott Newman, the party’s candidate for attorney general, didn’t mince words. He announced his support for Lillehaug last week — an ironic choice, since Lillehaug was once an unsuccessful DFL candidate for attorney general.

The endorsement process of any political party is not infallible. Minnesotans have long understood as much. It’s why this state gives the final word about political party candidate selection to primary election voters, not convention delegates.

Yet MacDonald’s overwhelming endorsement at the state convention after plainly inadequate vetting is particularly embarrassing for a party that has been in rebuilding mode in the last two years. Chastened party officials have vowed a tuneup of their pre-convention screening efforts. They should also consider creating a process for recalling an endorsement that proves problematic — as the DFL did once in the party’s early years, for secretary of state in 1954.

Among the questions the GOP’s post-MacDonald review should consider is a fundamental one: What good is served by political party endorsement of judicial candidates? Our answer: very little — and that modicum is greatly outweighed by the damage partisan endorsements do to public confidence in the impartiality of state judges.

The Republican Party should end its practice of hanging a party label on candidates for the bench. And the DFL Party should continue its long-standing refusal to add a partisan tint to the third branch of state government.

The small virtue that can be claimed for partisan endorsements is that they provide information about contests that lack visibility. But there are ways to inform voters about judicial candidates that don’t involve creating an impression that a judge is biased toward one political faction or party.

Former GOP Gov. Al Quie has led a reform effort that proposes a nonpartisan, merit-based evaluation process for sitting judges. Its results would be made public before an election in which an evaluated judge’s name is on the ballot. Under the proposal of the Coalition for Impartial Justice, voters would then be asked whether or not to retain that judge for a six-year term. Installing new judges would be the responsibility of the governor after a merit-based screening process — planting recent common practice permanently in state law.

The Coalition for Impartial Justice proposal has attracted impressive support, including four former chief justices of the Minnesota Supreme Court and two former Republican governors, Quie and Arne Carlson. We wish the state GOP would have heeded those elder statesmen, resisted the temptation to endorse judicial candidates and joined the coalition backing retention elections for judges. We’d bet that as they watched Michelle MacDonald make a State Fair stir last week, a few GOP leaders wished the same thing.

  • PARTISANS ON THE BENCH

    Only seven of the 50 states select their state Supreme Court justices via partisan elections — that is, elections in which party affiliation is displayed on the ballot. For a rundown of state judicial selection methods, check the website of the American Judicature Society.

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