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Future of judicial elections

Published (3/11/2010)
By Patty Ostberg
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How judges retain their seats on the bench could change, but it would first require an amendment to the state constitution.

Sponsored by Rep. Steve Simon (DFL-St. Louis Park), HF224 if approved by voters, the state constitution would have judges initially be appointed by the governor, and upon completion of their first term in office be subject to a vote by electors. If a majority of voters vote “yes,” the judge would be retained for an eight-year term; a “no” majority would force the governor to appoint another individual.

The bill was approved by the House State and Local Government Operations Reform and Elections Committee. It stems from a U.S. Supreme Court decision in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White that Simon says essentially allows judges to directly raise money for campaigns, receive political endorsements and announce their positions on disputed legal issues before they come before the court.

It results in “very high-dollar, ideologically driven and, most importantly, outcome-based campaigns for a judge, and I don’t think we can have that in a democracy,” Simon said.

Minnesota Chief Justice Eric Magnuson supports the bill. “When you have a system that leads the public to believe that campaign contributions influence outcomes you are damaging the judicial system immeasurably,” he said.

The change to the law carries costs. There have been, and will probably be, more cuts to the court systems, and these types of elections are not occurring in Minnesota right now, said Rep. Gene Pelowski, Jr. (DFL-Winona), the committee chairman.

“The cost of not doing it is absolutely monumental to the citizens … the fact that money is tight doesn’t mean that you stop addressing issues,” Magnuson responded.

Susan Miles, president of the Minnesota District Judges Association, said the organization can’t support the bill. First, it doesn’t provide a trigger mechanism that would inform judges in sufficient time whether a person has mounted an opposing campaign, nor does it require a merit selection system for all judges and courts which the governor would use in selecting a new judge, she said.

The bill now goes to the House Civil Justice Committee.

A companion, SF70, sponsored by Sen. Ann Rest (DFL-New Hope), awaits action by the Senate Finance Committee.

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