Monday, March 3, 2008

Should Minnesota get rid of contested judicial elections and who should be selecting our judges?

Early last month the Star Tribune came out in favor of the Quie Judicial Selection Commission legislation which is working it's way through the state legislature this session. It's already had a couple of hearings.

The legislation is a constitutional amendment proposal which is quite far reaching. It would eliminate the current contested judicial elections in favor of retention elections, lengthen judge terms from 6 to 8 years, establish a judicial selection committee which would provide the governor with three candidates from which to select a judge, and establish a judicial evaluation committee to review the performance of judges.

What's motivated the commission proposal is fear, especially among some current judges, over the prospect of having full blown, contested elections in the Minnesota. In neighbor Wisconsin, a race for a seat on the Wisconsin state Supreme Court recently saw $6 million spent by the candidates.

I testified last week on the proposed legislation SF 2401. I said that while I don't oppose moving away from contested elections, I believe judicial terms should remain at 6 years and a voter initiated retention election process should be established to remove a bad judge before his or her 6 year term is up.

I said the fundamental principle which should guide any reform is judicial accountability to the public. Different aspects of the proposal move away from public accountability and establish a more elite, legal establishment judicial selection process. For instance, the selection committee would be comprised of unelected, unaccountable individuals deciding who our judges will be. And the performance evaluation group, also unelected and unaccountable individuals, would decide at times in private which judges are qualified and which aren't. Under the proposal, I think judges will be more bland, establishment, MN Bar Association- type lawyers. Unorthodox and particularly talented individuals would have a more difficult time getting appointed to the bench.

I think the legislation goes too far in trying to overall our constitutional judicial system in one fall swoop. The proposal should have been more narrowly drawn.

Will it get on the ballot in 2008? Hard to say. There was quite a bit of opposition, as well as support, from judges. Also, Phil Carruthers, former DFL speaker of the House and a Ramsey County prosecutor testified against it. In favor were Governor Quie and former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe. Given the wide variety of opinion on the bill, it would probably be hard to get it through all the various committees it has to pass in this year's short legislative session. The more hearings mean the more questions raised. As with most wide ranging legislation, it usually takes more than one session to get it through the process. So 2010 might be a better bet.

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