New life for proposal on judicial elections

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 6, 2010 - 10:15 PM

A plan to let voters decide whether to retain sitting judges is decried as elitist, hailed as less partisan.

After appearing dead only last month, a plan to scrap contested judicial elections in favor of having Minnesotans vote to keep or fire sitting judges is breathing new life.

Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park, withdrew his bill when it was headed for almost certain defeat in a House committee. But now House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and another House leader who supports the proposal have sent it to a different committee where it has a better chance of advancing.

The proposal authorizes Minnesotans to vote in November on whether to change the state Constitution to create a judicial retention election system.

The system would include an advisory panel that rates judges before an election. Voters would then decide whether to retain or remove the judge. If voters gave a judge the thumbs down, the judge would step down and the governor would appoint a replacement.

Proponents say retention elections would lessen the possibility that partisan politics will influence judicial selection. They say the change is needed because court rulings have cleared the way for more campaign spending by special interest groups.

Opponents say that the fears are unfounded and that a retention system would be "elitist" and strip voters of the ability to choose one judicial candidate over another.

Simon's judicial retention bill ran into trouble in the House Civil Justice Committee, where chairman Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis, was cool to the idea. Mullery said most of the legislators on his committee opposed the bill because they saw no urgency for the change and believed people had a right to vote in contested elections.

Simon blamed his bill's demise on "ideologically driven special interest groups" that "twisted arms," and cited some organizations opposed to abortion. DFLers lead both the House and Senate, but Simon said about one-fourth of them are against abortion rights.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, resuscitated the proposal by introducing it in a bill that he's sponsoring with the help of Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, and House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm. The measure was sent to the Rules and Legislative Administration Committee.

Winkler said Thursday that the maneuver was needed for the proposal to have a chance of coming to a vote in the full House, where he said there is enough support to pass it. "We don't want this issue to be dead for the session," he said.

The measure would prevent "multimillion-dollar races for judge" in which candidates cast themselves as friendly to interests that could come before them on the bench, he said. There is a similar measure advancing in the Senate.

The provision that calls for asking voters if they want to amend the Constitution for judicial retention wouldn't need approval of the governor to be placed on the November ballot. Other elements of the bill could be vetoed.

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210

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