Judicial Election Reform Advancing in MN

Reformers in Minnesota want to protect existing respect for the courts. To do so, they’re pressing for a constitutional amendment to shield judges from the potentially damaging influence of high-spending, partisan elections.

These are the arguments advanced in an editorial and a separate commentary in one recent day’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. They make a strong case for a constitutional amendment to replace partisan elections with up-or-down retention elections and to set up a non-partisan commission to evaluate judges near the ends of their terms.

The editorial notes that the measure for such an amendment recently passed a House committee, after drawing support from an illustrious group including former Republican Gov. Al Quie, former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, Minnesota Chief Justice Eric Magnuson and former Chief Justices Russell Anderson and Kathleen Blatz:

“It takes extraordinary leadership to sell an argument that the state Constitution needs to change so that something close to the status quo can be preserved. Fortunately, some of Minnesota’s best leaders of the last several decades are applying themselves to this task. The Legislature should join them and send this amendment to the people.”

The commentary piece was written by Dane Smith, president of Growth & Justice, and Mitch Pearlstein, president of the Center of the American Experiment. One think tank is progressive, the other conservative. The authors are united by a central concern: “When judges become entangled in nasty, high-priced elections, the public’s confidence in the judiciary is inescapably diminished.”

Smith and Pearlstein maintain that impartial assessment of judges through the new system would actually allow citizens to cast “far more informed votes” than they do currently.  Judges would have to get at least 50 percent of the vote to keep their seats in the retention system contemplated. The authors conclude with a wary eye cast toward neighboring states:

“It’s true that we haven’t had an ugly, expensive judicial election in Minnesota — yet. But the poison of partisan, big-money judicial elections is seeping throughout the Midwest. Next door in Wisconsin, citizens watched $6.2 million pour into a 2007 state Supreme Court race, much of it spent by interest groups. It is foolish to think our borders offer a defense. The time to immunize against a disease is before it hits.”

Currently, judges in Minnesota can be challenged by other candidates. But most draw no opposition and are automatically reelected. About 90 percent of judges also are initially appointed to courts, after other judges retire during their terms.

You can read more about Minnesota’s debate in Gavel Grab, and about appointment and retention systems from Justice at Stake’s issues page about them.

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