Judge Dread?

Now that our collective hearts have finally stopped pounding from the nonstop thrill ride that was the Minnesota judicial races of 2008, it seems like a good time to stop and reflect on the way these elections work. The results are still technically unofficial. But according to the most recent figures from the secretary of stateâÄôs website, 2,920,180 ballots were cast in Minnesota in the 2008 general election. Of those votes, 2,910,332 people voted for president. IâÄôm not sure what those 9,848 people were thinking when they skipped the ballotâÄôs main event, but my guess is they were so pumped for the judicial races that they completely forgot about those âÄúother guys.âÄù Hey, it could be true. There were also plenty of people who skipped the judicial races. For the Third Seat on the Minnesota Supreme Court, 2,088,464 people voted. For the Fourth Seat, 2,007,365 people voted. At the appellate court level, even more ovals were left blank, as 1,960,093 people voted in the only contested race. ThatâÄôs counting write-in votes, for all you jokers out there who threw Stephen Colbert or Spongebob Squarepants into the ring. Essentially, more than three quarters of a million people went out to vote and didnâÄôt make a decision on the judges who will be interpreting this stateâÄôs laws for the next six years. In any case, there is a growing movement in Minnesota that wants to take these judicial elections off the ballot and introduce a system that its proponents say will keep qualified judges on the bench and keep partisan money from distorting our independent branch of government. A group called Minnesotans for Impartial Courts (MIC), headed by former Gov. Al Quie, is trying to change the way Minnesotans choose the people who interpret their laws. LetâÄôs take a step back and try to put all this judicial selection business into context. According to the Minnesota Constitution, the citizens get to elect their judges. The only exception is when a judge leaves in the middle of a term, in which case the governor gets to appoint a replacement, who must stand for election after serving as a judge for a year. Until 2002, judicial candidates were prohibited from announcing their views on disputed legal or political issues, for fear of politicizing the judiciary. However, in the U.S. Supreme Court decision Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, AmericaâÄôs highest court, struck down MinnesotaâÄôs rule as an unconstitutional violation of free speech. According to the folks from MIC, this decision opened the door to campaign donations, party endorsements and other nefarious political acts designed to make the judicial branch just another partisan branch of state government instead of the independent interpretive body theyâÄôre supposed to be. TheyâÄôve got evidence to back up their claims. Money has poured into political campaigns in other states with similar election systems. According to the research of a group called Justice at Stake, one Wisconsin Supreme Court race in 2007 saw between $5 and $6 million dollars raised by candidates and interest groups. On Nov. 4, the chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court was ousted after he lost a battle for re-election when an ad funded by the Democratic Party accused him of falling asleep during a case, a charge he denied. He was the first chief justice in the history of Michigan to be ousted and he blamed the politicization of the race. MIC is concerned the same thing could happen in Minnesota. âÄúIndependence and impartiality are under attack from those who would substitute their personal, partisan, economic or social agendas for the rule of law,âÄù Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page said, according to the MIC website. The group proposes a constitutional amendment that would change judicial selection to a system using âÄúretention electionsâÄù instead of the current model. In this proposed system, the governor would appoint judges to fill any vacant seats from a list of candidates chosen by a âÄúmerit selection committee,âÄù chosen by the different branches of government. Then, instead of having these nominees run for reelection after one year, MIC would institute a Performance Evaluation Commission composed of other judges, legal experts and ordinary citizens to prepare a report on the judgeâÄôs performance. This report would be published, and during general elections, voters would simply vote approval or disapproval of the candidate. If the judge is voted out, the merit selection committee forms a new list of candidates for nomination. Of course the retention elections would still be susceptible to money from interest groups, but MIC believes the system is âÄúthe best way to focus our judicial selection on the qualifications and performance of judges,âÄù according to its website. Not everyone is excited about the proposed changes to the system. MICâÄôs proposal has been called elitist and a backhanded tool to protect sitting judges. âÄúYou got one group of muckity mucks giving the rubber stamp to another group of muckity mucks,âÄù said Golden Valley, lawyer Greg Wesal in a Jan. 31 Star Tribune article. Tim Tingelstad, who lost his race against Paul Anderson for Seat 3 on the Minnesota Supreme Court on Nov. 4, considers the current system superior. âÄúMeaningful, contested, nonpartisan judicial elections keep our courts accountable to the people,âÄù Tingelstad said on his website. So what about you? Were you among the 800-odd thousand who voted last week and chose to forego your vote on judicial candidates? Are we better off just leaving this judge stuff to the experts in an attempt to keep money and politics from ruining the judiciary? Or is it more important that each person have a potential voice in the selection of our judges? Jake Parsley welcomes comments at [email protected]