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Judicial election changes proposed

Published (3/30/2012)
By Mike Cook
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Judge Jeffrey Thompson, right, and Judge Teresa Warner, left, testify March 28 before a joint meeting of the House Judiciary Policy and Finance and Civil Law committees during an informational hearing on a pair of bills that would modify mandatory retirement age for judges and eliminate the incumbency designation on the ballot for judicial offices. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)Since 1949, sitting judges have an incumbency designation on the election ballot.

Some people believe that creates an unfair advantage in a contested race.

Sponsored by Rep. Ron Shimanski (R-Silver Lake), HF1536 would eliminate the incumbency designation for judicial offices on a ballot and it would modify the mandatory retirement age for judges.

The bill was one of two heard March 28 at an information-only meeting of the House Civil Law and Judiciary Policy and Finance committees.

In addition to the non-incumbent designation for judges, HF1474, sponsored by Rep. Diane Anderson (R-Eagan), would, in part, create judicial election districts where judges could only be elected by residents of the county where the judge chambers. Judges in Hennepin and Ramsey counties would be assigned judicial precincts where the same rules would apply.

Among the arguments put forth by supporters of the incumbency change is that the current system makes it seem as though the incumbent is more entitled to an office than a challenger, and it would better hold judges accountable.

“If we have a system where legislators aren’t recognized as incumbents, I don’t see a good reason why the incumbency designation should be made for the judges,” said Chris Kumpula, an Elk River resident.

Jeffrey Thompson, a district court judge in Winona and assistant chief judge of the 3rd Judicial District, said Minnesota is unique in its incumbency designation. “This current system has worked well, well enough for a human system, for the past 63 years and we don’t think it should be changed.”

Current law requires a judge to retire the last day of the month that he or she turns age 70. Under the proposals, the mandatory retirement time would become Dec. 31 of the next even-numbered calendar year after the judge turns 70.

Instead of having the governor appoint a replacement, supporters say voters would be able to decide who should best fill the forthcoming vacancy through an election.

Sen. Scott Newman (R-Hutchinson) sponsors both companion bills. A companion to Shimanski’s bill, SF627, awaits action by the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. SF1508, the companion to Anderson’s bill, awaits action by the Senate Local Government and Elections Committee.

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