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Monday, May 7, 2007

Overhauling judicial elections

After finally sifting through the 58-page Quie Commission report (which was issued in late March), I am still not 100 percent sold on the majority's recommendation that Minnesota adopt a retention system for judicial elections. (Under a retention system, voters cast a ballot on whether or not a judge should be retained; this differs from our current system, which allows challengers to run against specific judges.)

While retention elections stop someone from getting elected to the bench by using politics or money from special interest groups, they do not keep someone from getting voted off the bench after political or special interest groups finance "do not retain this judge" campaigns. Moreover, judges may not know whether they will have to raise money to fend off such a campaign until it is too late.

The minority position was to convert Minnesota to a pure appointment system whereby the governor would make the selection from a list of candidates presented to him by merit-selection commission. Of course, this approach eliminates direct accountability to the people through the ballot box.

Other alternatives include leaving things as they are (which runs the risk of allowing highly politicized judicial elections in Minnesota) or having some sort of legislative involvement in the process, as committee member Eric Lipman posits in his own intriguing proposal. (I have to put some more thought into this one.)

All of the major alternatives have some pretty sizable drawbacks, so I find myself still pondering the correct course. There are no easy answers here. To paraphrase Winston Churchill's famous axiom about Democracy, I think we will have to go with the option that is the worst -- with the exception of all the other options, that is.

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