The flip side of the ballot

They are among the “other” races.

They are the candidates who rarely have name recognition and hardly ever turn up in campaign literature.

Yet, if you work your way through the major federal and state races at the top of the ballot, you’ll find a long list of nonpartisan judicial races at the bottom.

Minnesota’s judicial candidates are overwhelmingly incumbents, judges who are usually running unopposed. This November there are 15 judicial elections to be decided in this district—so many that they take up nearly the entire back page of the ballot. Yet only two of those races—for Minnesota associate Supreme Court justices—have challengers’ names on the ballot.

The boldface instructions at the bottom of each side of the ballot say, “Vote Front and Back of Ballot.” But with tepidly contested offices like these, it may be easy advice to overlook. Why bother, you may ask, with a list of semi-anonymous judges who seem destined for re-election anyway?

Those long lists of unopposed judges represent a kind of compromise between deference to judicial expertise and a populist instinct to make every branch of government accountable to the will of the voters. Those in favor of the Minnesota system of selecting judges say it’s worked without problems for at least 150 years, but there are others who warn of dark days ahead if Minnesota doesn’t make some changes.

The proposed remedies vary. Some endorse recent moves to open the system to increased public involvement though political endorsements of judicial candidates. Others—including a blue-ribbon, bipartisan group of former legislators and judges—want to act to preserve the nonpartisan nature of Minnesota’s judiciary, shielding it from the kind of knock-down political brawls that have erupted in judicial races in states like neighboring Wisconsin.

In theory, any Minnesotan over the age of 21 in possession of a state license to practice law and the $300 filing fee can run for judge. In practice, it doesn’t work anything like that.

The vital step in determining who becomes a judge in Minnesota depends on the governor’s power to make interim appointments when a judge’s seat becomes vacant. When a jurist in any of the three levels of the Minnesota state judiciary retires, the governor steps in to appoint a successor. In the case of the seven-member Minnesota State Supreme Court or the 19-member Court of Appeals, the governor has absolute power to appoint his or her own choice to replace a retiring judge. When filling an opening among the 289 district judges, the governor must choose from lists of candidates drawn up by the 49-member Minnesota Commission on Judicial Selection.

Once a judge is appointed, he or she must seek the approval of the electorate at regular intervals during general elections.

That’s what explains all those unopposed candidates for the Court of Appeals and district judgeships on the November ballot. By law, each of them must go before the voters in order to stay in office. Of course, every sitting judge has a line on the ballot listing him or her as “incumbent” and, although space is provided for write-in candidates, organized opposition is rare.

Of all the judges on this year’s ballot in the east metro area, only the two associate justices of the state’s highest court are facing opponents, and if historical precedence holds true, their seats are safe. In 80 years, voters have never overturned the re-election of a sitting Minnesota Supreme Court judge.

The opponent of Associate Justice Wilhelmina (Mimi) Wright is John Hancock. A diligent search failed to produce either a website or an email address for Hancock, and his online filing notice lists a Nebraska phone number.

The candidate facing Associate Justice David Lillehaug, Michelle L. MacDonald, has been in the headlines ever since it was revealed in June that the GOP-endorsed candidate had been arrested in 2013 on charges of drunken driving and resisting arrest. MacDonald’s September trial ended in acquittal on the drunken driving charges, but she was convicted of resisting arrest in the incident. Sentencing is scheduled for the week after Election Day. Meanwhile, the man at the top of the state GOP ticket, gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson, has announced that he no longer intends to vote for MacDonald.

As judicial races in other states have increasingly taken on a partisan tinge, Minnesota’s judges have remained largely above the political fray. That may change, according to some political observers. In 2010, the federal U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit struck down rules that traditionally barred Minnesota judges from soliciting campaign funds and political endorsements.

Former Gov. Al Quie works with a group that wants to ban the presence of party-endorsed or independent candidates on the judicial ballot. (Photo by Griff Wigley, Locally Grown Northfield)

Former Gov. Al Quie works with a group that wants to ban the presence of party-endorsed or independent candidates on the judicial ballot. (Photo by Griff Wigley, Locally Grown Northfield)

One observer with personal ties to the St. Anthony Park neighborhood is alarmed by the potential intrusion of politics into judicial races. Former Gov. Al Quie is 91, but when it comes to the issues, he is anything but retired. He has taken a prominent role with the Coalition for Impartial Justice, a group that would like to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would require a public yes-or-no vote of approval on sitting judges but would ban the presence on the ballot of party-endorsed or independent candidates like Hancock and MacDonald.

As Quie sees it, this is the best way to ensure high-quality, impartial justice.

“In states with contested judicial elections, there’s so much corruption,” he said, and joked that, as a Republican, “I tell people, ‘If you went to court and you were wrong, you’d want a good, solid Republican judge. But if you went to court and you were right, then you’d want an impartial judge.’”

When Quie was in the governor’s office in the early 1980s, he instituted by executive order the first merit selection board for consideration of judicial nominees. That move led eventually to the legislative creation in 1989 of the Minnesota Commission on Judicial Selection. The coalition wants to see a merit selection process extended to Minnesota Supreme Court and Appeals Court judicial appointments as well.

The constitutional amendment proposed by the coalition was tabled this legislative session because it was unable achieve the bipartisan support to fight its way out of committee. Will it be reintroduced? That depends in part, said Quie, on the results of November election.

Quie does his best to stay above the partisan struggle these days, but he allows himself one comment on the bitter polarization that has become a fact of so much of modern politics: “I have problems when people don’t do what’s best for the state instead of what’s good for their political party.”

Judy Woodward is a regular contributor to the Park Bugle.

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