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Group pushes constitutional amendment to change Minn. judicial elections

Posted by: under Minnesota campaigns, Gov. Mark Dayton, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota legislature, Democrats, Republicans Updated: February 26, 2014 - 12:23 PM

A bipartisan group pushing a proposed constitutional amendment to change how Minnesota judges are elected began their public lobbying effort at the Capitol on Wednesday.

The Coalition of Impartial Justice is pressing for a change that would end traditional judicial elections. Instead, sitting judges would face an independent review and their records shared with Minnesota voters, who would then decide whether to keep or toss the jurist.

Advocates say this is superior to the current system, where most judges run unopposed with little outside scrutiny. They also say existing system more easily allows judicial elections to become expensive campaigns, as partisan groups square off after a judge’s ruling on a divisive issue.

“The judicial system works because people trust it and they don’t think it is bought and paid for,” said former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, who was appointed by former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty.  “We are at a perfect storm now,” he said, noting a recent spate of expensive and divisive judicial elections in Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Critics like attorney Greg Wersal say supporters want to tinker with the constitution for something that has never been a problem in the state. Judges almost always run unopposed and voters have not ousted an incumbent Supreme Court justice in more than 80 years. He said this is really an effort by sitting judges to protect their positions.

About 20 other states use such judicial retention elections, but Minnesota would join a handful of other states that require a nonpartisan panel to select a pool of qualified judges and an independent assessment of a judge’s tenure that would be shared with voters.

If voters toss a judge, the new judge would come from a group vetted by the indepedent review panel. There would be no way for an outside candidate to run against a judge.

Supporters say the new system makes judges more accountable.

“Minnesotans have little or no info about judges when they are on the ballot,” said Sarah Walker, the group’s president.  “There is really no means of holding the judges accountable.”

So far, DFL legislative leaders have not publicly committed to putting this constitutional amendment on the ballot in the coming election. In the last election, voters defeated two proposed amendments, one banning same-sex marriage and another that would have required voters to show a photo ID.

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