Harry's Gang: Don't dismiss the value of choosing your judges
October 23, 2020
Seven of the area’s judges are on the ballot this year, running for re-election for six-year terms. There are no contested elections this year in our area. Every incumbent judge is running unopposed.
There is a contested race in the State Supreme Court. I’ll get to that later.
You may be wondering why no one runs against sitting judges. It’s because it’s difficult by design to win against a sitting judge. We have a nice system of selecting judges in Minnesota. Traditionally, most judges retire midterm, and eager lawyers apply to a statewide selection committee, which then recommends a few names to the governor, who then appoints a replacement. Judges then run when their seats are up for election, giving voters a chance to elect or reject them.
Most judges run unopposed, unless there are challengers, which again by tradition doesn’t happen except in extreme cases. There’s no law that requires judges to resign midterm, but there is a tacit understanding that Minnesota’s system is the safest way to keep politics out of the system while still making judges accountable to the voters. The law does allow incumbent judges to be identified with the word “incumbent” right on the ballot. This gives incumbents a little edge, of course. We wouldn’t tolerate such an advantage for other elected offices, but we accept it in the judiciary because we want to keep trust and stability in the courts.
Longtime Carlton County Judge Rob Macauley is running unopposed. This is newer Judge Rebekka Stumme’s first election, having been appointed to the bench about a year-and-a-half ago. I haven’t seen a lot of yard signs or radio and TV ads for them (although I wouldn’t object to a few print ads, if you catch my drift). That’s OK. I plan to vote for both of them anyway.
We adopted this system to prevent the judiciary from being too political. We need to trust the courts. That can’t happen when we choose our judges by campaigns, advertising and slogans. We don’t need extensive campaigns for judges. Minnesota has quality judges using this odd system, so it works, and we should keep it that way.
I’ve been practicing law in Carlton County for more than 21 years. In all that time, I have never — not once — seen a judge’s political beliefs influence judicial decisions. Not once. A judge’s rulings should have nothing to do with politics. Everyone should be treated the same by the courts whether you are rich or poor, male or female, liberal or conservative, gay or straight or somewhere in between. I know some of the judge’s personal political beliefs, but not by how they rule in cases — mostly from discussing politics in between cases or at professional events. We have no “activist” judges here.
That’s why I am a little concerned about the State Supreme Court seat contest.
Current Justice Paul Thissen is being challenged by Michele MacDonald, but not for the right reasons. MacDonald is a rabble-rouser, and is not running to ensure thoughtful and trustworthy judicial decisions. She’s running because she can, and wants to muck things up in the courts. This is her fourth attempt at becoming a Supreme Court justice. Unfortunately, enough voters will cast their ballot for her simply because she isn’t the incumbent, probably not realizing how dangerous it is to start politicizing the courts. I happen to think she’s unqualified, but that’s not why I am not voting for her. I’m supporting the incumbent because I think the Minnesota custom of selecting judges is the best system out there.
A few years back, the state almost went to a “retention” system, where judges were appointed (as they are now, informally), then are on the ballot as either “keep” or “replace.” If the majority vote “replace,” the governor appoints someone. I’m not a fan of retention elections. I like the system we have in place. I hope it stays in place for a long time.
Pete Radosevich is the publisher of the Pine Knot News and an attorney in Esko who will host the talk show Harry’s Gang on CAT-7 again soon. His opinions are his own. He can be reached at [email protected]