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Election Reform Aims to Keep Partisan Politics Out of MN Courtrooms

April 26, 2010

ST. PAUL, Minn. - The landscape for electing judges in Minnesota has changed dramatically in recent years. Judicial candidates can now share their social and political views, raise campaign money, and seek election endorsements. A growing number of legal, advocacy and nonprofit groups are worried that this means partisan politics and special-interest money will influence court rulings.

Brian Rusche, executive director of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, says this would threaten the ability of judges to make independent, impartial decisions.

"Judges should not in any way be beholden to campaign contributors, nor should they engage in highly partisan politics, nor adopt the rhetoric of attack ads."

Advocates for judicial election reform are pushing for a constitutional amendment that changes the system of selecting judges.

Chris Morris, president of the Hennepin County Bar Association, says that, under the proposed amendment, judges would be appointed by the governor after going through a rigorous merit selection. After the initial appointed term, the public would vote on whether or not judges would keep their seats through a retention election.

"We want to remove politics as far as possible from the process of selecting judges."

Opponents of the proposal say that there's no problem to fix, and that the new system would take the power of selecting judges away from the voters.

Brian Rusche says that lawmakers should let the public decide.

"Let the public vote. Let us make our case for this new reform and the public can vote on it in November. Don't stand in the way of letting the public decide whether this reform makes sense."

The Minnesota House of Representatives is expected to hold a hearing soon on whether or not to add a November ballot question about the proposed reform amendment.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision loosened campaign restrictions for Minnesota judicial candidates under the present system.

Sharon Rolenc/Laura Thornquist, Public News Service - MN