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Voter Guide: Minnesota Supreme Court

Editor’s note: The following questions and answers were facilitated by the Minnesota Newspaper Association for its member newspapers.

Michelle MacDonald

Why do you want to be a judge? What are your personal priorities?

I have witnessed an unprecedented display of courts abusing their discretion and authority and damaging people and families by their court orders. I want to be a judge in the Court of Appeals to effect change and to hold our judges accountable to equal justice, the rule of law, the Constitution and due process. I advocate a unitive system — a model of justice that is equal and voluntary, where those in conflict meet in a safe space, hear each other out, and decide what to do about their conflict. All individuals and members of the community are empowered to address conflict using various communication tools. As a seasoned restorative practitioner, I am in a unique position to implement processes of community and restorative justice throughout Minnesota by reframing the role of judges to act as supporters of restorative justice practices. As an associate justice, I would require more community and restorative justice practices at all levels of Minnesota’s court system. This includes the responsibility for bringing concerned parties together to participate, with the goal to not only resolve conflicts and heal harms, but to contribute to the public safety and achieve social benefit.

Should political parties endorse judicial candidates?

The short answer is “no.” I was endorsed by the Republican Party of Minnesota in the past, but I just as easily could have been endorsed by the Democratic or independent party, if they endorsed judicial candidates. I did not view the endorsement as taking sides. An impartial decision maker is a critical part of due process. A judge’s role is to determine relevant facts, apply those facts to relevant law, reach a legal conclusion and make a decision that is just in the particular case. Politics is not part of being a judge.

Briefly summarize your personal background and qualifications.

For 33 years, I have been helping thousands of people with legal challenges before hundreds of judges. My practice areas include matters of all kinds including civil rights, constitutional issues, family law, child custody, support, property, child protection, adoption, juvenile, wills, trust and probate, traffic and criminal defense, business, real estate, injury, appeals, dispute resolution, and restorative services While raising a family, I work as an attorney, mediator and restorative justice circle facilitator and trainer. I've managed a law firm and other businesses, and contributed my time to legal and community activities. I founded Family Innocence, a nonprofit dedicated to keeping families out of court: resolving conflicts and injustices peacefully. I developed and teach a restorative circle mediation training certified by the alternative dispute resolution, judicial branch. I've been a judge in small claims court, and a family court referee in Hennepin County. I've filed dozens of appeals for clients, researching and writing briefs for the Minnesota Supreme Court, with appearances before the appellate court, the Supreme Court and petitions to the United States Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

PAUL THISSEN (incumbent)

Why do you want to be a judge? What are your personal priorities?

Serving on the Minnesota Supreme Court has been an incredible honor and a job I love. I care deeply about Minnesota and its future. I have a long and deep commitment to public service, and I have learned through that work that Minnesotans value fairness, accountability, individual dignity, and the chance to have their voices heard. I have worked hard in my legal, legislative, and now judicial career to promote and defend those values. The Minnesota Supreme Court is the venue where those values are tested and must be upheld under difficult and nuanced circumstances with longstanding consequences for Minnesotans. I believe that the breadth of my experience with the law as a litigator, public defender, advocate, and legislator give me unique insight for the work of the Supreme Court. I am inspired each day to meet the challenges of the role. I also love the law. I believe intellectual curiosity is a critical characteristic for a judge — a focus on understanding the “why” and not just the “what” of the legal principles at issue in a case. I love the intellectual challenge of puzzling through conflicting claims, digging into the rationale behind a provision, and in Justice Holmes’ phrase, getting to the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity. I am inspired by the potential to make our obligations to each other under the law clearer and justice more accessible for Minnesotans. I want to make sure that our judicial system always sees and never forgets the real people behind the litigation. Access to justice is a bedrock value for me. Making sure that people get a fair shake in life has been a deep commitment throughout my career and in my nonprofessional life. It is demonstrated in my extensive pro bono work, my service in organizations like the Minnesota Justice Foundation, and a legislative career focused on recognizing and expanding the scope of the individual rights and the power and dignity of everyday Minnesotans. Serving on the Supreme Court gives me the opportunity to use the administrative authority of that position to make sure we constantly move toward a justice system where everyone’s voice is heard and everyone’s rights are protected. Finally, I am committed to compassionate justice: to looking at issues from all perspectives, closely listening to every litigant, and recognizing human imperfection and the possibility of change and redemption. That is my fundamental promise to all Minnesotans.

Should political parties endorse judicial candidates?

No. Political parties have a constitutional right to endorse judicial candidates and I certainly respect that right. But I believe that Minnesota has been well-served by a tradition where parties have not (with a few exceptions) endorsed in judicial elections. One result is that Minnesota has a strong culture and tradition of collegial, non-ideological decision-making in its courts. Our system of appointments through a well-established and respected Judicial Selection Commission — a system that governors of three parties have honored — is one reason for our strong and non-ideological bench. Nonpartisan elections support the continuance of that culture and tradition among judges and justices. That said, the judges, the bar, the media and others must do more to educate voters about the importance of judicial elections and the characteristics voters should consider when selecting judges, as well as providing the public with specific and accessible information about the background and qualifications of judicial candidates. A central component of my campaign is to engage in such an educational effort through virtual town hall meetings across the state, significant engagement efforts through social media, and other methods of communication with voters.

Briefly summarize your personal background and qualifications.

The qualities that are most important in a justice are the same qualities that Minnesotans value: a strong work ethic, fairness and compassion, respect for others and their viewpoints, intellectual curiosity, and a breadth of professional and personal experience. I have served on the Minnesota Supreme Court for two-plus years.

I grew up in Bloomington, the son of two public educators. I attended Harvard University and the University of Chicago Law School. Prior to my appointment to the court in 2018, I practiced law in Minnesota for 25 years. I worked as a law clerk for the Honorable James Loken of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. I worked at the law firm of Briggs and Morgan from 1993-2009 as a litigator and appellate lawyer.

I handled a wide variety of complex business litigation including securities fraud, environmental litigation, labor and employment matters, utility and railroad disputes, and insurance coverage work. I served as chair of the firm’s pro bono committee for several years, and personally handled several criminal appellate matters for the Office of the State Public Defender, represented individuals seeking orders for protection in domestic abuse cases and a family law case, and represented individuals seeking asylum in the United States through referrals from Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights.

I also worked for nearly a decade with a team of lawyers from Briggs and Morgan who represented an individual on Texas death row. We ultimately succeeded in reversing the sentence. I developed and organized Access for Persons with Disabilities, a program that trained lawyers on the unique needs and obstacles to justice for persons with disabilities. In 1999 and 2000, I worked for the Office of the State Public Defender in the appellate division handling a wide variety of appeals before the Minnesota Court of Appeals and the Minnesota Supreme Court, ranging from juvenile matters to criminal sexual conduct cases to first-degree murder convictions. In January 2010, I joined the Lindquist & Vennum firm (now Ballard Spahr). My practice shifted to health care transactional and regulatory matters.

I also served in the Minnesota House of Representatives from 2003-2018. I served as chair of the Health and Human Services Committee from 2007-2010. In addition to serving as Speaker of the Minnesota House in 2013-2014 and caucus leader from 2011-2016, I served on numerous other committees. My practical experience as a former legislator gives me a deep respect for the legislature as the branch of government entrusted to make policy and affords me a unique perspective on making sure the Supreme Court is truly and properly understanding and implementing the Legislature’s intent.

My legislative career also afforded me the profound opportunity to travel tens of thousands of miles over the last decade to all corners of Minnesota, visiting with people in their homes and businesses, in prisons, hospitals, churches, homeless shelters, colleges, and courthouses. Most important, I have listened closely to Minnesotans’ stories, aspirations, and concerns. I carry those conversations with me as I do my work as a Justice. It is a powerful grounding for sustaining and renewing a justice system that is responsive and truly sees the people behind the lawsuits. There is additional background information on the campaign website http://www.paulthissen.com.

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