Protecting the judiciary

Minnesotans should not be subjected to retention elections.

by Ronald Dixon

As a progressive, I am a staunch supporter of reforming government practices, but some state legislators are pushing for an unnecessary and potentially damaging change to judicial elections.

The desire for reform stems from a 2005 federal appeals court decision in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, which ruled it was unconstitutional for Minnesota to limit partisan activities and money within judicial races.

As a result, some have expressed the concern that Minnesota’s current judicial elections, which are seen as the pinnacle of the nation, would deteriorate into partisan mudslinging contests in which outside groups like the Koch brothers could purchase election outcomes.

To address these concerns, Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-Hopkins, introduced a bill that may be brought up as soon as next year. The legislation would change the way Minnesotans elect justices, substituting our simple election and appointment system to judicial retention elections.

In the current system, local judges and state justices are either elected or appointed, and voters get the opportunity to re-elect these individuals or oust them in favor of an alternative candidate.

Through judicial retention elections, a committee would select from a list of candidates that the governor must appoint. Then the committee would analyze the performances of the candidates, and a seal of approval would appear on the ballot if approved.

Ultimately, reformers see this plan as a way to prevent money from influencing Minnesota judicial elections, but there are potential negative implications for such a change.

First, we should consider what’s happened in other states with retention elections. After an Iowa Supreme Court ruling legalized same-sex marriage in that state, three justices were ousted. Out-of-state groups spent more than $650,000 in the effort to unseat the judges during their retention elections.

When justices are up for retention elections, would controversial decisions place judges at the whims of a partisan committee formed by a partisan governor? What protections would judges receive so that they can base their rulings on judicial integrity as opposed to the level of controversy?

Finally, this reform may violate the separation of powers. Greg Wersal, a former state Supreme Court candidate, warned that retention elections would give too much power to the executive branch and strip away the right for Minnesotans to vote for whichever candidate they choose. One can hardly call this process a fair election when voters can only choose between approving a state-appointed sitting judge and having the state select another individual to take their place.

The current system lacks the partisan elections that we have seen in other states. While the infamous Citizens United case paved the way for even more money in legislative and executive elections from Super PACS, Minnesota’s judiciary has not been negatively influenced by the White case. Furthermore, judges hardly face challengers because, in general, they do a great job upholding the integrity of the Minnesota justice system, and when these candidates do run against an incumbent, they hardly garner any support at all.

Although money in politics is a real concern, we should not make haste to reform a system that is not broken.