Gavel Grab

Minnesota Considers Judicial Reforms


Minnesota is pushing judicial reforms in light of the “rough-and-tumble” politics that have defined Wisconsin’s recent judicial elections, according to an article on

The state Senate Judiciary Committee is considering proposals to amend Minnesota’s constitution to enforce reforms that would “buffer” the state from the national trend towards nasty, politicized judicial elections. The amendment would require that judges undergo performance reviews and stand for retention elections based upon those reviews. Any judges rejected by voters would be replaced by a governor appointee based on merit selection.

Former Governor Al Quie, currently the chairman of a bipartisan reform commission, has led the charge in the reform efforts, hoping to eliminate contested judicial elections in an effort to diminish the possibility that heavily funded “smear campaigns” will take hold in Minnesota. He is joined by several former executive officials, former Congressmen, and organizations such as the Citizens League of Minnesota, the Center of the American Experiment, the Minnesota AFL-CIO and the League of Women Voters.

However, the proposed amendment also faces opposition from the Minnesota District Judges Association, as well as conservative groups that, according to the article, “have been successful in using political attacks and insurgent candidates to oust sitting judges, especially those viewed as hostile to business and soft on criminals.”

Furthermore, according to an editorial in the Star-Tribune, “It’s hard to make a case for changing something that, so far, appears to be working well.” So far, the state’s system of judicial appointments coupled with contested elections has managed to ward off the involvement of political parties and political action committees. But the elimination of restrictions on political speech during judicial campaigns by the U.S. Supreme Court presents a “danger” to the current judicial system, the editorial said.

Retention elections would create another barrier that makes it more difficult for special interests to influence judicial selection, the editorial noted:

Several states use such a system, and they report little problem with the big-money, special-interest involvement in judicial elections that has become commonplace in many states that permit contested elections. Special-interest groups exhibit little interest in simply unseating a judge when they cannot control who replaces him or her.

According to the article, the proposed reforms are, in large part, an adverse reaction to the contested and particularly vicious judicial elections that have occurred across the country, including within Minnesota’s neighbor, Wisconsin. Specifically, the article cites the judicial race between Michael Gableman and incumbent Louis Butler, in which Gableman  advertised Butler as soft on criminals A storyboard of one of the ads can be found here.

The article quotes the National Center for State Courts, “a judge’s job is to make decisions based on facts presented and the applicable law in individual cases. Judicial candidates can neither reward their campaign supporters, nor, if elected, work with those supporters to advance shared objectives.”

To see the National Center’s amicus brief, see Justice at Stake’s Caperton v. Massey online resource site.

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  1. […] can learn more about reform efforts in Minnesota from Gavel Grab, and about appointment/retention systems from Justice at Stake’s issues page. No comments […]

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