Vote on Minnesota Supreme Court seat overshadowed by other races

A photo collage of Paul Thissen and Michelle MacDonald.
Incumbent Paul Thissen (left) and attorney Michelle MacDonald are running for a seat on the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Photos by Brian Bakst and Tim Pugmire | MPR News file

Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice Paul Thissen is trying to retain the seat he was appointed to in 2018. His challenger is Michelle MacDonald, a controversial lawyer who is making her fourth bid for the court.

This is the first time Thissen will face voters as a Supreme Court justice, but it’s not the first time he’s faced voters. Before he was appointed to the court two years ago by then-Gov. Mark Dayton, Thissen had a long run as a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives. He served from 2003 to 2018, including a stint as speaker of the House. This campaign isn't like his previous runs, Thissen said.

“The biggest difference is this is a nonpartisan office. So as candidates and as judges, we don’t engage in partisan politics,” Thissen said. “I don’t talk about cases that might come before the court and don’t really engage in what people typically think of as political issues.”

Instead, Thissen said he talks about his passions, such as protecting constitutional rights and his work to make the courts more accessible to all people. Thissen is also trying to educate voters on what it takes to serve on the court. He is emphasizing what he sees as the qualities that matter in a supreme court justice.

“You want someone that has demonstrated a willingness to work hard, someone that is going to act fairmindedly and listen to all sides,” he said. ”Someone that is going to have the ability to really dig into the legal issues and struggle with what are tough issues.”

Incumbent judges typically have little trouble winning reelection in the rare cases when they have opponents. But Thissen is taking the contest seriously, given his unconventional opponent’s previous vote totals.

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Michelle MacDonald received 46 percent of the vote six years ago when she ran with the Republican endorsement against David Lillehaug. She received 41 percent in 2016 against Natalie Hudson and 44 percent two years ago in her challenge of Margaret Chutich. 

Too many judges run unopposed, MacDonald said.

‘I’m going to give you a choice to exercise your constitutional right to vote for judges,” said MacDonald, an attorney specializing in family law. 

She is a founder of a nonprofit organization that works to help families resolve conflicts and stay out of court. MacDonald views the judicial system as a troubling bureaucracy.

“If elected to the Minnesota Supreme Court, I pledge to eradicate judicial corruption, ensure judicial integrity, and restore our rights to access to the courts, due process and a fair trial as required under the constitution, the law and the rule of law,” she said.

MacDonald is known for running afoul of the system she seeks to change.

In 2014, she was acquitted of a drunken driving charge, but was convicted of obstructing the legal process. In 2018, the Minnesota Supreme Court suspended her law license for 60 days and placed her on probation as the result of behavior in a district court trial, including false statements about the integrity of the judge.

The Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility is currently seeking additional discipline against MacDonald, alleging she repeated her past misconduct and filed a frivolous defamation lawsuit. A ruling on the matter is expected later this month.

MacDonald said it feels like a preelection setup.

"The system is coming down on me, the legal system, because I know what's happening. I've experienced it, and they're trying to muzzle people," she said.

The challenge for MacDonald and Thissen is getting people to turn their ballots over and vote for Supreme Court justice. Many voters ignore those contests. For example, nearly 700,000 fewer votes were cast for the Supreme Court seat in 2018 than were cast for governor.  In 2016, 750,000 more votes were cast for president than for Supreme Court justice. The Minnesota State Bar Association (MSBA) is working to close that gap by sharing information with the public about the candidates and co-sponsoring with the League of Women Voters a candidate forum, which is scheduled Oct. 12.

The state bar association also recently shared the results of a poll of some of its members.  Of the 6,848 lawyers surveyed, 91 percent favored Thissen and 9 percent went with MacDonald.

Still, MSBA President Dyan Ebert said her organization does not take sides in judicial races. The goal is to get more people to cast an informed vote, she said.

“A lot of times people don’t know much about the candidates,” Ebert said, “and so we see our role in the process as providing education about the candidates.”

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