Minnesota lawyer campaigns for appellate court

If elected, Dan Griffith would be the only judge who was not first appointed.

Courtney Blanchard

Minnesotans will face many unfamiliar names on the ballot in November. In a statewide race for appellate court judge, two unknown candidates are trying to break into a race that has historically gone to the incumbent.

Dan Griffith, a lawyer from International Falls, is running against incumbent Judge Christopher Dietzen. If Griffith beats Dietzen, he’ll be the first judge to ever join the 16-member Minnesota Court of Appeals through election, not appointment.

The challenger

“There are few positions with such absolute power as a judgeship,” Griffith said Friday at Coffman Union, where he distributed campaign fliers to students.

A 1988 University graduate, Griffith said he wanted to run because he’s argued before good judges and “less-than-good” judges, and is concerned many are appointed because of ties to the governor.

“I know some very good judges Ö but some people are changed by power,” he said.

It’s important for judges to be accountable to the electorate, Griffith said, and he wants to make history by defeating an incumbent appellate judge.

Lissa Finne, a Minnesota Court Information Office spokeswoman, said a 1983 constitutional amendment created the Court of Appeals.

Since then, all judges have started their terms by appointment, but run for re-election in the next general election. No appellate court judge has ever been defeated, she said.

Timothy Johnson, political science professor at the University, said if Griffith were to win, it wouldn’t have much of an effect on the Minnesota judicial system.

“For the most part, judges are not patronage positions,” he said. “The idea that these are old cronies and friends of the governor just isn’t true.”

Johnson gave the example of appellate court Judge David Minge, appointed by former Gov. Jesse Ventura, whom Johnson described as an independent-minded Democrat rather than an insider of Ventura.

He said most judges who are appointed are re-elected because there are no other names on the ballots. If a voter’s choice is only “yes” or “no,” Johnson said, very few people will check “no.”

“Most people don’t know about these races because they just don’t know the judges,” he said.

The incumbent

Dietzen currently serves on the Court of Appeals, and is defending his seat against Griffith. He served as Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s campaign attorney, and applied for an open position on the Minnesota Supreme Court after Pawlenty’s election.

He said he went before the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, and though it declined him a Supreme Court seat, the commission forwarded his name for appointment on the Court of Appeals.

Dietzen, like many on the court, said elections for judges can politicize the judiciary, especially since the Republican Party of Minnesota v. White decision in 2003, which allows judiciary candidates to express personal political views.

“I think it’s important to have an independent, nonpolitical judiciary,” he said.

The campaigns

Mary Vasaly, co-chairwoman of the Judicial Elections Commission for the Minnesota Bar Association, said the legal community is concerned judicial candidates will use “hot-button issues” like abortion to persuade voters, rather than their legal experience.

She said because the public isn’t familiar with who’s running, they don’t know how to evaluate them.

“It’s on their résumé, but that’s not exactly a sexy sort of thing,” she said.

Dietzen said he is trying to reach voters “one by one.” He said he visited the Lady of Guadalupe church in St. Paul Thursday, and planned to visit towns across Minnesota before the election.

He said he wants to talk to voters about his experience as a judge.

“I’m not going to put up yard signs or bumper stickers,” he said.

Griffith also has a plan to reach voters. He’s created a Web site, a few lawn signs and thousands of homemade fliers.

Though reaching voters all over Minnesota from International Falls can be difficult, he said, he still finds time to campaign when he’s not working or spending time with his wife and four kids.

“When I can, I go out and just talk to people,” he said.