Gavel Grab

Backers’ Push for Merit Selection of Minnesota Judges is Spotlighted

With hopes of putting a proposed merit-based system for selecting judges before Minnesota voters in 2014, the proposal’s backers are working to visit every corner of the state. A (Rochester, Mn.) Post-Bulletin article highlighted one such local event, its participants and their reasoning.

At the event this week in Rochester, panelists speaking in favor of the proposed constitutional amendment in the legislature were former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson; Sarah Walker, president of the Coalition for Impartial Justice; and John Wade, president of the Rochester Chamber of Commerce.

The proposal has drawn bipartisan support (see Gavel Grab for background). It would end competitive elections for judges. According to the Coalition for Impartial Justice, a nonprofit group, it would enable selection of judges based on their qualifications and not on partisan politics. The proposal specifically calls for gubernatorial appointment of judges from a list of finalists recommended by a merit selection commission, a retention election if the judge seeks to stay on the bench, and nonpartisan evaluation of judges’ performance by an independent performance evaluation commission. Read more

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Bipartisan Push for Judicial Selection Reform in Minnesota

A former Republican governor, Al Quie (photo at left), and a former state chief justice appointed by a Republican governor, Eric Magnuson, are among leaders stumping for Minnesota to adopt a merit-based system for selecting judges.

The proposed changes would help Minnesota choose the most qualified judges and help avoid the kind of high-spending, sharply partisan judicial elections like those of neighboring Wisconsin, Justice Magnuson (photo below right) told the Star Tribune. “Everything I have heard from the opponents of this proposal seems to be intended to insert politics more strongly into the judicial selection process so they can pick judges who would be biased,” he added.

“This is one of the most important issues facing the state,” said Quie, a board member with Coalition for Impartial Justice, a nonprofit group. “When something goes wrong, you have to be confident that you are being heard by someone who is fair and impartial. To lose that, you lose so much.”

The article updates efforts by supporters of a proposed constitutional amendment. It envisions gubernatorial appointment of judges from a list of finalists recommended by a merit selection commission, a retention election if the judge seeks to stay on the bench, and nonpartisan evaluation of judges’ performance by an independent performance evaluation commission. Read more

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Fear of Big-Spending, Partisan Judicial Elections Drives MN Reformers

As advocates push for a change in the way Minnesota’s top judges are selected, a former Minnesota Supreme Court chief justice is warning about jeopardizing trust in impartial courts when it appears that justice is for sale.

“Judges and the justice system depend on the confidence of the public and their integrity,” former Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson told MinnPost.com. If there is a perception that court outcomes can be bought, he added, “[Y]ou’ve done tremendous damage to the justice system.”

Some advocates for reform fear that Minnesota soon may experience high-spending, special interest-influenced judicial elections like those of neighboring Wisconsin, where the bitterly divided state Supreme Court has come under criticism as a model for dysfunction.

The MinnPost.com article is headlined, “Is Minnesota on the brink of ultra-expensive, partisan judicial elections?” The article examines the kinds of judicial selection systems used in different states, based on data from Justice at Stake. It examines not only the experience of Wisconsin but also of neighboring Iowa, which has a merit-based judicial selection system of the type supported by the Coalition for Impartial Justice in Minnesota.

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Push for ‘Impartial Justice Act’ Would Codify Current MN Practices

To preserve fair and impartial Minnesota courts, and to avoid the influx of big money into judicial elections that some other states have seen, advocates of a switch to a merit-based judicial selection system are reaching out to educate citizens about proposal.

An article from the Fergus Falls Journal highlighted efforts by one group advocating for the reform, Common Cause Minnesota. “Right now, 90 percent of judges run unopposed,” Jeremy Schroeder, the group’s executive director, told the newspaper. “That’s taking away people’s voice. Giving folks education on the judges will let them have an informed choice.”

Under current practice, the governor appoints most judges after receiving a list of candidates from a vetting committee. Common Cause Minnesota wants to codify that practice as the law.

“It’s not set in stone,” Schroeder said. “We have to make this big change to keep things the same. We want to keep the parts of the system that are working.”

A proposed constitutional amendment before the state’s legislature envisions gubernatorial appointment of judges from a list of finalists recommended by a merit selection commission, Read more

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Minnesota Begins Debate on Shift to Merit Selection of Judges

Minnesota legislators have begun debating a proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate judicial elections and adopt a merit-based selection system, and a House committee voted favorably this week.

Backers of the proposal view retention elections as a means to avoid the kind of big-spending, highly partisan judicial races that neighboring Wisconsin and other states have seen, a Pioneer Press article reported. In addition, former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson testified that up-or-down judicial elections would “stop the pernicious influence of politics” in choosing judges.

While merit selection has been debated in the legislature before, the Minnesota District Judges Association has opposed it, but this year that group’s opposition “is fading,” the newspaper said.

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Commentary: Minnesota Judicial Elections Result in ‘Most Qualified’ Judges

Minnesota Judge Jeff Thompson, chairman of the Minnesota District Judges Association, says in a Winona Daily News editorial that the state should only switch to a system of retention elections if that system guaranteed a credible judicial performance evaluation program, and notices to incumbent judges when their “retention was being challenged.

Thompson wrote this in response to another Winona Daily News editorial by retired Judge Dennis Challeen which endorsed adopting a system of merit selection for choosing judges.

Thompson refers to a merit selection method known as the Missouri System, and says that retention elections don’t completely eliminate the influence of politics or campaign cash. He cites the ouster of three Iowa Supreme Court justices in 2010 who were removed from the bench during a retention election. Read more

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Minnesota Merit Retention Supporters Gaining New Ground

With a new Democratic majority to be sworn in soon, advocates for a merit selection system of electing judges believe they may get more legislative support to change the state’s judicial selection process. They hope the Democratic lawmakers will be more keen to change than their Republican counterparts, states the Minnesota Lawyer.

Under a merit-based system, a nonpartisan commission would screen top candidates for judicial vacancies, and the governor would then select one of the finalists. Then, at the end of their terms, a nonpartisan judicial evaluation commission would issue a report on judges’ competence and effectiveness. Judges then face a retention vote in which voters decide whether they stay on the bench or not.

Supporters of judicial selection reform say that retention methods prevent money and politics from seeping into judicial races. Brian Rusche, member of the Coalition for Impartial Justice, believes there will be new support for reform in the coming years.

“We are going full bore with this and hoping to pass a bill in the 2013 legislative session to give people the maximum amount of time to learn about the issue,” Rusche said.

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Judicial Races, Reform Talk Grab Attention in States

With judicial elections only three weeks away in some states, races for state supreme courts are getting stepped-up news media attention. In a few states, reform of judicial elections or judicial recusal also is in the spotlight.

In West Virginia, where four candidates are running for two seats on the state’s highest court, Republican Circuit Judge John Yoder supports nonpartisan judicial elections, and Democrat Tish Chafin has proposed changing the process for disqualifying a judge in event of a potential conflict of interest. An Associated Press article was headlined, “W. Va. high court hopefuls mindful of critics.”

In Ohio, a Toledo Blade article reported on incumbent Justice Robert Cupp’s re-election bid and challenger William O’Neill’s stated concerns about the way judicial elections are funded.  There were these reports from other judicial election states:

MINNESOTA: A Pioneer Press editorial about three contested races was headlined, “Minnesota Supreme Court candidates deserve voters’ attention.”

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Court Declines Appeals on Judicial Candidate Limits, Iowa Merit

The Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal of Minnesota’s restrictions on fundraising and endorsements by judicial candidates.

As a result, the high court left intact rules that bar judicial candidates from endorsing candidates for elective office and from directly soliciting campaign money given by individuals and small groups.

The high court refused to hear an appeal sought by Gregory Wersal, according to an Associated Press article. He who has run for the Minnesota Supreme Court and who has challenged the restrictions since 1996 (see Gavel Grab).

In another action on Monday, the Supreme Court denied an appeal of a  challenge to part of  Iowa’s merit-selection process for choosing state Supreme Court justices.

Four Iowa residents, represented by Indiana attorney James Bopp, challenged  the makeup of the nominating commission that screens candidates for Iowa’s Supreme Court, and it sought to stop the commission’s seven lawyer members from helping to pick finalists to replace three justices whom voters had ousted in November 2010.

The lawsuit contended the nominating commission afforded too much influence to lawyers, and said it was unconstitutional because ordinary citizens did not have a say in appointing those seven lawyer members, who were elected by members of the Iowa State Bar Association.

A lower court and the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the challenge (see Gavel Grab), and the nation’s highest court refused on Monday to hear an appeal, according to LegalNewsline.com.

 

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Illinois Campaign Disclosure Law is Upheld

A divided federal appeals court has dismissed claims by a Virginia-based group that an Illinois disclosure law violates the group’s freedom-of-speech rights.

A three-judge panel of the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals turned down the claims by the Center for Individual Freedom, a significant spender in state judicial elections, and the panel upheld the Illinois disclosure law, according to a Reuters article.

Under the challenged statute, advocacy groups must disclose their donors, even if influencing elections is not the group’s main purpose.

According to Reuters, the Center said it had wanted to air ads in 2010 that dealt with “judicial matters” and “legal reform” issues, involving incumbents seeking re-election.

Judge David Hamilton wrote for the majority that comprehensive disclosure was “especially valuable after Citizens United,” the Supreme Court’s landmark campaign finance ruling in 2010. Judge Hamilton added, ”Amidst this cacophony of political voices — super PACs, corporations, unions, advocacy groups, and individuals, not to mention the parties and candidates themselves — campaign finance data can help busy voters sift through the information and make informed political judgments.”

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