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Coalition pushing to change state's judicial election process

A broad coalition that includes business and labor groups is urging lawmakers this session to back a proposed constitutional amendment that would change the way Minnesotans elect judges. But supporters acknowledge they've got their work cut out for them.

"The problem with judicial elections is it's not the sexiest issue in the world, and it's hard to explain," Sarah Walker, president of the Coalition for Impartial Justice, said during a forum Thursday in Rochester.

In Minnesota, the nonpartisan Merit Selection Committee sends a list of recommended judges to the governor. The governor generally selects someone from this list and appoints them. These judges stand for election every six years. Minnesotans have historically elected judges on a nonpartisan ballot. But some fear that judicial races could become partisan and costly in Minnesota because of recent court decisions allowing judges to seek political party endorsements, announce their positions on issues, attend political gatherings and solicit campaign contributions.

The coalition is behind a proposal called "The Impartial Justice Act," which would create a 24-member Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission. Members would be appointed by the governor, Minnesota Supreme Court or Minnesota Legislature with no more than 11 attorneys on the commission. This commission would review judges appointed by the governor. The final reviews would be made public and label a judge either "well qualified," "qualified" or "unqualified." People would vote whether to retain the judge or not. They would not get a chance to vote for a different candidate. If a judge failed to win a retention election, the governor would appoint another judge.

Mixed views


During a discussion on the issue sponsored by the Citizens League and Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce, the idea received mix reaction from the audience. Retired government and economics teacher Bill Schneider said he supports the proposal. Generally, he said, he believes a lot of proposed constitutional amendments are attempts by lawmakers to get partisan measures passed without having to get the governor's approval. But he said this would be a proper amendment to the constitution because it has to do with the framework and organization of government.

"It is legitimate, it is needed, and it's the proper way to do it," he said

But Jeanne Ronayne told supporters she is "really not sold" on the amendment. Ronanye is program manger of Victim Services for Dodge, Fillmore and Olmsted counties.

"I am concerned about this retention vote and that it would be overtaken by more of the business interest than the individuals that I represent," she said.


Critics of the proposal say it takes away a person's right to vote by denying the chance to vote for another candidate. But supporters say that in 90 percent of the judicial elections, judges run unopposed, so most voters do not have an option. This would at least give them the chance to vote on whether to keep a judge on the bench.

Election season

Backers of the proposed amendment likely will face a tough fight at the Minnesota Capitol, where several other proposed constitutional amendments backed by the Republican-led Legislature are expected to be considered. Those include a proposal that would require people to present a photo ID to vote and one where tax increases would require support from three-fifths of lawmakers to pass. The marriage amendment, which would prohibit same-sex marriage in the state, will be on the ballot this fall.


Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, asked supporters if it makes sense to put the issue on the ballot this year when it will likely be competing with several other Republican-backed ballot questions and odds are there will be a campaign urging no votes on all the ballot questions.

"I understand the urgency of getting this done as soon as possible, but I wonder if this isn't going to be a very bad election cycle to be putting it on the ballot," Liebling said.

Walker said she is optimistic that voters would consider each ballot question separately. She said polling numbers show that 72 percent to 82 percent of voters support the proposal.

Retired Judge Ancy Morse said a key issue to consider is how these judges will be evaluated and who will do the evaluation.

"You have to ask yourself if it's fair to the judge or the public to have the work of a judge evaluated by non-legal people," she said. "We don't want to be likened to some system where open heart surgery is evaluated by a lay group."

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