Political divide emerges on plan to overhaul Minnesota judicial elections

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 22, 2013 - 9:46 PM

New proposal would end open judicial elections, but give voters a chance to keep or dump judges.

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Former Minnesota Governor Al Quie, a Republican, speaking before a panel of lawmakers in 2011.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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A bipartisan effort to retool how judges are elected in Minnesota is facing a fresh test as several Republican lawmakers are pulling back their support for the idea, revealing the latest partisan rift at the State Capitol.

A group with broad support in the legal community — and the strong backing of a former Republican governor — is pushing a constitutional amendment that would change the way judges face voters.

Judges would still stand for re-election, but would face no challengers. Instead, voters would opt to keep judges or toss them out. If an incumbent lost, a nonpartisan review committee would assemble a new pool of potential replacements and the governor would select a new one.

“This is one of the most important issues facing the state,” said former GOP Gov. Al Quie, a board member with Coalition for Impartial Justice, a nonprofit group that has been pressing the issue for several years. “When something goes wrong, you have to be confident that you are being heard by someone who is fair and impartial. To lose that, you lose so much.”

“I think it’s the worst fricking idea ever,” said attorney Greg Wersal, a conservative activist who has unsuccessfully challenged Supreme Court justices dating back to 1998. “They want to take away people’s right to vote. The only people who like it are the judges.”

Former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson said the changes would help ensure that judges are of the highest caliber and tamp down the chances for hugely expensive and bitterly partisan judicial elections that have sprung up in other states, including Wisconsin.

“Everything I have heard from the opponents of this proposal seems to be intended to insert politics more strongly into the judicial selection process so they can pick judges who would be biased,” said Magnuson, who was appointed by former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

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

Wersal and others say supporters want a constitutional fix for something that has never been a problem in the state. Judges nearly always run unopposed and voters have not denied an incumbent Supreme Court justice re-election in more than 80 years.

“We’ve had this election system for 100-and-some years,” Wersal said. “Where is the evidence of horrible things? It hasn’t happened. It’s all a giant smoke screen from a bunch of scared justices who don’t want to lose their plum positions.”

Judicial elections turn political

Supporters say they see ominous signs in other states, where normally low-key Supreme Court races took on political overtones that some felt threatened the integrity of the judicial system. A recent Supreme Court election fight in Wisconsin became a bitter, multimillion-dollar rematch between Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s allies and his Democratic rivals.

In 2004, the head of a coal mining company spent $3 million to help a Republican lawyer unseat a Democratic judge in West Virginia. The new judge, who had no previous judicial experience, then voted to overturn $50 million in damages against the coal mining company.

There are signs that the years of nonpartisan judicial elections with little or no fundraising are rapidly coming to an end in Minnesota. Wersal won court rulings in recent years that allow judges and their challengers to campaign, attend political events and raise money like any other candidate for elected office. In 2010, he won the state GOP endorsement to run against Justice Helen Meyer.

That is why some legislators are pressing to put the measure on the 2014 ballot.

“Quite frankly, the candidates themselves have resisted partisan interference in those elections,” said Sen. Ann Rest, a New Hope DFLer who is a chief sponsor of the measure in the Senate. “In this political climate, how long can we depend on that reality carrying the day?”

Rest said voters can always boot out a judge they don’t like, but this way the new justice would be more thoroughly vetted.

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