Proponents hope the idea would take the acidity out of judicial elections. Critics say it would serve only to fortify sitting judges.
Minnesota voters would no longer play a role in selecting new judges or face long ballots full of judicial races they know nothing about, if a proposal to change the way judges are chosen in the state becomes part of the Minnesota Constitution.
Hoping to avoid what they see as the divisive trappings of today's modern political stage, a group that includes Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and former Minnesota Gov. Al Quie proposed the changes Thursday because of what they said are emerging threats to the fairness of the courts.
Judges who decide everything from criminal sentences, to custody disputes, to constitutional questions about sensitive social issues would be insulated from partisan politics and special interest influence under the plan, its proponents said.
But, as it has in the past, the proposal also drew scathing criticism for being elitist and a backhanded tool to protect sitting judges.
Under the new system, all judges would initially be appointed by the governor after a commission nominated the most qualified candidates. Another commission would evaluate their performances.
Voters' role would be to periodically make an up or down decision about whether to keep a judge in office. If rejected by voters, a judge would be replaced by a new appointed judge.
The proposal is being made by a group called Minnesotans for Impartial Courts. Lawmakers will introduce legislation to make the changes through an amendment to the Minnesota Constitution when the Legislature convenes in two weeks. If approved, voters would decide on the question in November.
Twenty states have system
Quie, the chairman of the group, started the first merit-selection process for appointing judges by executive order shortly after taking office in 1979. He said citizens "are just upset if there are partisan elections that we see now going on for judges."
The group emerged after a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that scrapped Minnesota's rules barring judicial candidates from voicing views about political or legal matters. The federal court ruling allows for political party endorsements and discussions of how a candidate might feel about potential court cases, such as abortion.
Twenty states already use the so-called retention election system for selecting at least some of their judges.
Page, a member of the coalition, emphasized at a morning news conference that he was not speaking for the court. The former Viking and member of professional football's Hall of Fame used a Super Bowl analogy to make his case.
"Would we stand for a minute the notion that the officials in charge of that game had an interest in the outcome? And yet we stand here with the potential of having some of the most fundamental decisions, most important decisions, about how we go forward as a society decided by people who have a stated, voiced interest in the outcome."
But Greg Wersal, a Golden Valley lawyer whose challenges led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision that opened up Minnesota's judicial elections, said there is no reason to adopt the proposal. The first year after Wersal won his case, one incumbent judge lost his position to a challenger in Minnesota, while 60 were up for re-election.
Wersal said the proposal would undermine accountability. He called the proposed system an elitist method of insulating judges from the transparency of their actions, which is to determine public policies in which citizens should have a say.
"You got one group of muckity mucks giving the rubber stamp to another group of muckity mucks," he said.
Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636