Many Minnesotans say they are tired of polarizing politics at the state and national level -- and that can include people in politics. So Scott County Republicans attempted to set an example of civil debate Thursday night over a recurring issue that divides their own party: judicial elections.
"I think a lot of people got turned off by the fact that government just couldn't function very well," said Chris Brovold, director of House District 35B for Scott County Republicans. "We're trying to show that even within a party that disagrees, we can have a civil debate, have a good discussion, and get the information out to people."
The audience of about 60 people that gathered at a Shakopee bar each paid $10 to get in. They sat quietly, listening to the judicial elections debate.
Earlier this year in Wisconsin, millions of dollars were spent on an election for Supreme Court justice. The race was widely seen as a statement about Republican Gov. Scott Walker's legislation stripping many collective bargaining rights from most state workers.
Some Republicans say they want to keep politics like that out of judicial elections here, including GOP state Representative Michael Beard of Shakopee, who argued that side of the debate.
"We have a system right now that is pretty much tantamount to a lifetime appointment. 90 percent of the time there is no opponent next to their name. That needs to change. We need to find a way to engage the electorate for every race for every judge," Beard said.
Last session, Beard sponsored a measure to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot empowering the governor to appoint all judges. Citizens could then vote to retain the judges. Beard says that would keep campaign money from influencing judicial elections.
The other side of the debate, represented attorney and former judicial candidate Greg Wersal, says drastic changes aren't necessary. Wersal successfully challenged a state law limiting political speech by judicial candidates at the US Supreme Court. He says money isn't a problem.
"In Minnesota, only $2,000 can be given in a judicial campaign and we actually have a rule that prohibits judicial candidates from knowing who gave money or how much was given. So how do you have undue influence when the candidate has no idea who gave the money," Wersal said.
Wersal focused on one key change he says can greatly improve the system without a new constitutional amendment. He wants to stop the practice of identifying judges as incumbents on election ballots. He says that sends a message to citizens about who to vote for.
Audience member and active Republican Brenna Murphy of St Paul Park said it was important to have these kinds of discussions about issues that don't always make the news.
It's not sexy like gay marriage. It's not something people hear about and have a visceral response to.
She says it may take a while to get many people interested the issue of judicial elections. But Murphy says the process of having this debate is informative. It's constructive politics -- something she says we aren't seeing a lot of lately.
"You can disagree with someone and not disagree that there's a problem -- you disagree on a solution," she said. "But if you do it in a mature, respectful fashion, you start to find your common ground and then you can actually really start to address issues."
Several bills regarding judicial elections are expected to be introduced in the next legislative session.