I have been a district court judge for more than 26 years. My current term expires Jan. 5, 2015. The question before me: Do I serve out the remainder of my term and let the voters choose my successor, or do I retire before my term expires, and permit the governor to make the appointment?
There are two ways to become a judge in Minnesota:
One way is to either pay $300 or gather the signatures of 500 eligible voters from the judicial district and file an affidavit of candidacy; run a vigorous (or not) campaign, and hope the voters of the district (who may not know much, if anything, about you or your opponent) will elect you.
The other is for an attorney to submit a detailed application to the Judicial Selection Committee when there is an opening in the district. The application includes releases of information so that the records of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (for any criminal records), the Department of Revenue (for any tax issues) and the Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board (for any ethical issues) may be checked. From among the applicants, a certain number are selected for an interview by the committee. Following the interviews, the names of three to five well-qualified candidates are submitted to the governor’s office for consideration. The governor normally interviews the candidates and makes the selection of the judge from those well-vetted attorneys.
The Judicial Selection Committee is required by law to consider integrity, maturity, health (if job-related), judicial temperament, diligence, legal knowledge, ability and experience, and community service when evaluating candidates. The commission also is required to give consideration to women and minorities.
Voters are under no obligation to consider any of the attributes that the committee must. In fact, they may not be aware of how any particular candidate would measure up in any of these qualifications.
There are legitimate complaints that it is extraordinarily difficult to cast an intelligent vote for the judicial candidates that populate the backside of the ballot. Despite the ruling of Republican Party of Minnesota vs. White, which permits partisan endorsements of judicial candidates and permits such candidates to announce their positions on hot-button issues of the day, there have been few candidates who have sought such endorsements or have made such pronouncements. None of them have been elected.
It may be claimed that an educated electorate can be just as effective of an arbiter of these qualifications as the Selection Committee. In a perfect world, that would be true. However, I have been in other states during campaign seasons, and have seen and heard television, radio and newspaper advertisements on behalf of judicial candidates. At best, they give a brief sketch of a candidate’s character. At worst, they are smear campaigns aimed at disparaging the opponent rather than educating the electorate on the qualifications for office.
I have known and worked with exceptional judges who have taken office through election rather than appointment. But, when I look at the odds, I find that the application and interview process required to be appointed as a judge by the governor is far more likely to produce a well-qualified person to assume the office of district court judge.
For those reasons, I have submitted my letter to the governor informing him that I intend to retire before my term expires this coming January. I believe it will give the people of my county, judicial district and state the best opportunity to have a judge who is well-qualified, diligent and of judicial temperament.
Thomas G. McCarthy is a judge in Sibley County. He blogs at http://countryjudge.blogspot.com.