Judicial candidate contends opponent violated ethics

Andrew Pritchard

Now that Minnesota judicial candidates are allowed to state their positions on issues, Jack Baker has one he would like to raise.

The Minneapolis attorney and engineer is challenging Justice Paul Anderson for his seat on the Minnesota Supreme Court, contending Anderson violated judicial ethics rules by chairing the Minnesota News Council from 1994-1997.

“You shouldn’t have a judge involved in doing rent-a-judge while he’s on the bench,” Baker said. “It just demeans the court.”

The news council is an independent panel that hears complaints against news organizations. It is comprised of 12 journalists and 12 members of the public.

In his candidate disclosure form, Baker claims Anderson violated Canon 4F of Minnesota’s Code of Judicial Conduct.

The canon provides, “A judge shall not act as an arbitrator or mediator or otherwise perform judicial functions in a private capacity unless expressly authorized by law.”

Since the news council’s stated purpose is the mediation of disputes, Baker said, Anderson’s participation violated ethics rules.

“The harm is that you have a man who’s cheating on his ethics,” Baker said, “and a man who cheats on his ethics is not qualified to sit on the Supreme Court.”

Anderson said he was the fourth of six justices to lead the council.

“I do not believe that there is a violation of the canons of ethics,” he said.

The council has been chaired by a Minnesota Supreme Court justice since its creation in 1971. Justice Ed Stringer currently presides over the panel.

Anderson also said DePaul Willette, then-executive director of Minnesota’s Board of Judicial Standards, advised him there were no ethical problems with his participation.

“I approached this as carefully as I could and I took every step” to follow ethical rules, Anderson said.

Willette said the news council is not mediation prohibited by the judicial ethics canons.

“There’s certainly not a mediation involved here,” he said. “Mediation would involve putting the two parties in separate rooms and working out a settlement.”

Rather than mediating a settlement, the news council makes a decision on whether the news organization involved acted properly, Willette said.

Although the news council had not yet changed its rules to prohibit the presiding official from becoming involved in the council’s substantive discussion of disputes brought before it, Anderson said he decided to not participate in them.

“If you take a look at my record while I was on the council, you’ll find that all I did was preside,” Anderson said. “I did not vote.”

Gary Gilson, the news council’s executive director, agreed the council heads only preside and are not allowed to participate or vote in committee deliberations.

“We have no interest in influencing judges and no possibility of doing so,” Gilson said.

Parties to disputes must waive their rights to sue before they are allowed to use the news council process, Gilsen said, so no matters the council decides would ever be heard in court.

Willette said the council head’s role is similar to that of a military court-martial’s law officer: to keep order and advise the panel on the law if necessary.

“There’s no litigation involved; there’s no mediation involved,” Willette said. “It’s just serving as the chair of a committee.”

Baker said the damage to judicial ethics is done merely by a judge’s participation in the council.

“(Anderson’s) argument is that there’s no harm, and my response is, that’s beside the point,” he said. “The law’s the law, and you don’t get to pick and choose.”

He also said it did not matter if disputes Anderson heard on the news council could not come before him in a courtroom.

“I don’t have to point to some specific case. He broke the law,” Baker said.

He also questioned why the news council has let Anderson “twist in the wind” and not defended him.

“The news council has not stood up to defend itself,” he said.

Gilson said the council has not seen a need to publicly defend Supreme Court justices’ participation.

“There was no decision to be silent,” he said. “If anyone asks us a question, they get an answer.”

Anderson said he had not asked the council to make a public defense of his chairmanship and said the news council was giving the issue the appropriate amount of attention given the “somewhat unwarranted nature of the criticism.”

Anderson also said a presiding justice gives the council an atmosphere of fairness.

“Keep in mind what a valuable institution the news council is to Minnesota,” he said. “The concept that it’s fair is very important, both real and in perception.”