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.

With the current system, "You could get a mediocre choice over a godawful one," she said.

Quie is touring the state to press residents, community leaders and lawmakers to join the cause. His group is backed by chambers of commerce, bar associations, labor organizations and several current and former state Supreme Court justices.

GOP applies pressure

But the idea that judicial races would forever stop being open elections is grating on some GOP activists. They see enormous constitutional problems when candidates like Wersal would never again get a direct shot at unseating an incumbent judge.

Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, had joined with Democrats in sponsoring the measure — until he met with Republican supporters back home.

"There are those who feel pretty strongly about the integrity of the election process," Kelly said. "I told them if it was a major problem, I would take my name off it. And I did. But I do think it's worth having a conversation about it."

State Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, joined Rest and other Democrats to sponsor the measure in the Senate earlier this year. Rosen said Friday that she, too, is removing her name, under pressure from her party.

If too many Republicans withdraw support, Democrats will have to rely largely on their own members to put the question on the ballot. That could prove too big a lift during an election year in which control of the House hangs in the balance.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, "supports the concept, but constitutional amendments are not a priority for the 2014 session," said DFL House spokesman Mike Howard.

Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044