A bill in both the Minnesota House and Senate would end head-to-head elections for Minnesota judges.
Supporters of the bill, including members of The Coalition for Impartial Justice, spoke at the University of Minnesota Rochester on Tuesday night as part of the college's UMR Connects Speaker Series. The featured presenters were former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson; Sarah Walker, president of Coalition for Impartial Justice; and John Wade, president of the Rochester Chamber of Commerce.
The Coalition for Impartial Justice has advocates traveling throughout Minnesota. Walker said that the coalition wants judges chosen based on their qualifications, not partisan politics.
Instead of a head-to-head election, voters would instead vote to keep or remove a judge. Helping them make the decision is the grade given to the judges by a bipartisan committee. The grade would rank a judge as "well-qualified," "qualified," or "unqualified," would be made public before a "retention" election. In retention elections, voters would decide whether judges had adequately performed their duties.
If judges received majority approval, they would stay in office. The evaluation commission would have equal representation from the three branches of state government, including a majority membership of people who aren't attorneys. The bipartisan commission would look at how judges interpreted the law and provide facts in the evaluation. If voters decided to oust a candidate, the governor would choose a new judge, using the mandatory merit-selection process, which has been in place since 1994. There would no longer be any head-to-head elections for judges.
These changes are only possible if an amendment to the Minnesota Constitution is added. State Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, is one of the co-authors of the proposed constitutional amendment. Senjem said Tuesday night that he signed on to the bill a couple of years ago because he felt lawmakers should discuss the issue's pros and cons. He said there was little debate on the bill during the 2013 session, and he isn't sure how much discussion there will be next year either.
Walker said her organization is going to every corner of the state with the assumption that the proposed constitution amendment will be on the 2014 ballot.
Senjem said he doesn't feel judges should have to deal with partisan politics, public discourse or have to raise money like he does. With the bill still a ways away from the senate floor, Senjem said he wasn't ready to publicly say if he would vote for the proposed amendment if it does make it out of committee.
Area lawmakers Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, and Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, and Rochester Sheriff David Mueller were among local leaders in the crowd.
Members of the crowd were asked to submit questions. One of the first was, "how is this proposal better than what Minnesota currently has?"
Magnuson said he hears from many opponents of the proposal who ask, "if it ain't broke, why fix it?" Or, "Why are you bothering us with this?"
"You fix the roof when it's sunny, not when it's raining," Magnuson said. "The fact that we have the chance to do this now is something that we should take advantage of. There are people who say we shouldn't do it. The district judges are kind of divided on it because 90 percent of them never have to run for re-election, nobody files against them. Under this proposal, they are going to have to stand for election on a regular basis. That is not so bad if they are doing a good job."
Magnuson also said he had heard from some judges who worry that a couple weeks before a campaign someone could begin an online campaign against them, leaving little time to respond or defend their record. Currently, an opponent will file months ahead of time, and the incumbent will have plenty of notice. Magnuson called it, "a legitimate concern."
"But on balance, I think (the proposal) is better," the former Chief Justice said.