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Back in February of this year and a couple of years back, TruthToTell aired a couple of editions exploring the possibility of instituting an entirely new way of selecting our judges in Minnesota. Wisconsin’s circus of judicial elections, especially for the state Supreme Court over there (think shoving the face of a colleague there last year), is a very bad one in the minds of many court-watchers. That electoral system only mimics those envisioned in the outgrowth of the US Supreme Court ruling negating one of Minnesota’s cherished Judicial Canons that had, till then, prohibited as a possible conflict any overt campaign discussion of issues that could one day come before the court for which a given candidate was running. The 5-4 SCOTUS ruling opened wide the political campaigns of judges and justices, and this politicization of judicial races portended for the legal community nothing but trouble.
Legislation promoting a state constitutional amendment ordering new system of appointing judges and justices, then putting their performance before public scrutiny later – when their terms came up for renewal – has fared poorly over several sessions, despite it promotion by some of Minnesota’s most prestigious political and legal celebrities.
I erred in last Winter’s announcement and script when I stated that this new system of appointing judges called “retention elections” – was supported by Hennepin County District Judge Kevin Burke, whose credentials as a Chief Judge and an Assistant Chief Judge among the 62 judges of the Hennepin Court are significant, to say the least. Judge Burke wrote and simply stated he has never supported the proposed system.
So I wrote and called to discover that Judge Burke favors the election of judges in Minnesota. I then suggested that he come on, not just to defend the judicial electoral status quo, or some variation of it, but to discuss the plethora of reforms needed in the courts and criminal justice system.
So. From the horse’s mouth, as it were, we delve into court reforms and criminal justice disparities along with the ways judicial campaigns should be conducted if straight elections are to remain our primary selection method.
Of course, governors will continue to appoint when judges step down or retire before their terms are completed, and the field of candidates will be, as currently done, whittled to three by a nonpartisan merit selection commission, and from those top three contenders, the governor will usually – but not always – make his (or her) appointment. He or she may appoint whomever they wish as Gov. Pawlenty and others have done.