After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was legal for judicial candidates to use the same tactics as political candidates in re-election campaigns, some state lawmakers worry that could lead to hyper-political judicial elections.
State Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, is pushing a proposal that would allow voters to decide whether the current system of electing judges should change. Rest said she wants to keep nasty ads and partisanship out of judicial elections.
"We're trying to stave off of that kind of contested election politicking coming to Minnesota," she said.
Rest's proposal is a constitutional amendment that would remove potential challengers from judicial candidates. Instead, it would create a non-partisan board to review judges' performance before they run for re-election.
Using the board's rating, voters would then decide whether the judge should keep his or her job. If a judge is rejected by voters, the governor would appoint a new judge.
State Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, says the proposal seeks to fix a problem that doesn't exist.
"This bill is motivated out of fear that it might happen in Minnesota, but it hasn't happened yet," Ortman said.
It's Ortman's "yet" that worries some state judges. Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson told reporters that he's worried judicial elections will become nastier and more expensive. He points to recent judicial elections in Wisconsin that cost more than $5 million each.
"I am very concerned that the experience in other states is going to find its way to Minnesota," Magnuson said. "I think partisan elections are inevitable when you have contested elections."
Critics of the proposal say it would insulate the judiciary from the public. Minnesota Family Council President Tom Prichard said voters should be allowed to choose who they want to represent them.
"There's no worse form of tyranny than an unaccountable judge because they can imprison people; they can really affect people directly," he said.
Both the House and Senate have to pass the proposed constitutional amendment to put it on the November ballot. The voters would then decide whether to change the system or keep it in its current form. DFL Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller said he thinks the Senate has the votes to pass it.
In the House, the proposal is bottled up in the House Civil Justice Committee. DFL House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher said she's encouraging the committee chair, Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis, to hold a hearing on the matter.
Mullery isn't saying whether he'll follow Kelliher's instructions, but it's clear he doesn't like the plan.
"What's the problem that it's supposed to solve?" he said. "We have one of the best court systems in the country."
Kelliher won't say what action she'll take if Mullery declines to hold a hearing.