A look at the bench: Whats at stake in the judicial races

In the midst of another bitterly divided election year, argument and contentions are flying back and forth. In the din, it’s easy to overlook the changes quietly taking place in another set of contests: the judicial elections. The changes are slow, but they are steady, and they are cause for concern.  

Most Minnesota judges come to the bench initially because they are appointed by the governor, not through election, after being vetted by a nonpartisan merit commission. Then they stand for election every six years. Most of the time, incumbent judges are not challenged; sometimes they are and sometimes challenged judges are defeated. That system has worked well. It has given judges the breathing room they need to make unpopular decisions when that is required by law and has provided a measure of accountability for judges who are not performing. As a result, we have a judiciary that is highly respected by Minnesotans and people across the country.

But changes are afoot as a result of two federal court decisions that have changed the ground rules for Minnesota’s judicial elections. Under the new rules, judicial candidates may announce their party affiliation. They may address political gatherings like conventions. They may ask political parties for partisan endorsement. And they may take positions on political issues in running for judge.

In past years, there have been some political party endorsements of judicial candidates. It remains to be seen whether that will take place again this year. We also have seen some judicial candidates injecting politics into their campaigns. Again, it remains to be seen how much that will happen this year. The problem is this: Judges are different from other elected officials. Judicial seats are fundamentally different from legislative and executive seats. We elect legislators and executive branch officials to implement a political platform. Judges should not have a political platform. Judges should apply the law, whether or not it is consistent with their personal political views. Even where appeals courts must address areas where the law is gray, judicial decisions should not be based on political or personal views; in these areas, courts should look to the existing precedents and statutes. We must foster a culture in our state that supports this.

Money is another big concern. As politics enters the equation, money will flow in. That is the experience in other states where judicial races are political. Will those who donate money expect something in return? And what will be the public perception?

This year, there are three contested races for district court judges in Hennepin County, and three contested races for appellate court seats (the Minnesota Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals). One of the district court races is for an open seat where there is no incumbent. Open seats like this do not arise often and usually draw a lot of contenders. That was the case with the open seat in Hennepin County this year; six lawyers filed for the seat and that was winnowed to two in the primary election.

We are at a critical turning point. When it comes to judgeships, Minnesotans must turn away from political appeals.  

For information on all of contested candidates, look for the “candidate info” on the League of Women Voters Minnesota website at www.lwvmn.org. Another good source of information on the candidates is the 2008 Judicial Election Guide on the website of Minnesota Lawyer newspaper at www.minnlawyer.com. (That website is for subscribers only, but the voter guide is free; look for the special voter guide box and click on it.) You can get background on the judicial elections generally from the web site of Minnesota Women Lawyers at www.judgesandpoliticsdontmix.org (or just www.dontmix.org).

Karen Cole is a member of the League of Women Voters of St. Paul.

How to register

Pre-registration closed on Oct. 14. However you can register to vote on election day. Find your assigned polling place and register with a valid MN driver’s license or learner’s permit; MN ID card; MN tribal ID card with photo and signature; valid student photo ID; or current utility bill with your expired ID. A complete list of approved proof of residence is available from the Secretary of State. www.sos.state.mn.us

If you are a student living at school, you can choose whether to register at home or at school but not both! You can always vote by absentee ballot, but be sure you have the proper information and identification since rules differ from state to state.

How to vote Absentee

If you will be absent from your precinct on election day, if you have an illness or disability, if you are observing a religious holiday or due to religious discipline, or if you are serving as an election judge, you can obtain a ballot through Hennepin County Elections Department (612-348-5151) or directly from the City of Minneapolis (Hennepin County forwards this to the city). Allow a minimum of one full week to complete this process.

You can download a ballot request form from the City or County Website, or request an absentee ballot application by faxing your request or by writing to request your absentee ballot:

*Absentee ballot application need not be on an official or standard form. It is accepted if it contains the following information:

Name and home address

Date of birth (optional but helpful)

Address to which you wish ballot(s) sent

Reason for the request

Date of application

Your signature


City of Minneapolis Elections

350 S. 5th Street Room 1B

Minneapolis, MN 55415-1396

Fax: 612-673-2756