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Saturday, June 30, 2007

Chief justice: 'Storm clouds approaching'

During a speech yesterday on efforts to revise the state's system of judicial elections, Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Russell A. Anderson warned that there are "storm clouds on the horizon" that threaten judicial independence.

Anderson was, of course, speaking about the increasingly partisan nature of judicial races throughout the country. In a number of states with judicial races, special interests groups have been pouring money into the races in the hopes of fostering a judiciary more favorably inclined to their points of view. So far Minnesota has remained relatively unscathed by this disturbing trend, but proponents of change to the state's judicial election system, including Anderson, believe that it's only a matter of time before the tsunami reaches our state.

"It has been said that 'The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.' Well, the clouds are gathering and the sun is not going to shine on us much longer," Anderson said in the June 29 address, delivered at the Minnesota State Bar Association's annual convention at the St. Paul RiverCentre.

There are a few competing reform proposals out there right now. One would switch Minnesota to a retention-election system whereby voters would decide whether to retain judges up for election rather than chose between the incumbent and a challenger. Another proposal is to switch to an appointments system with a commission that would evaluate judges at the end of their term to determine if they should be retained for another term. There are also several other proposals, including one that would involve the Legislature in the process. All of the proposals would require that the Minnesota Constitution be amended -- a daunting prospect. Despite the potential problems with the current system, many believe the voters of the state would not be very receptive to efforts to alter or end their role in the selection and retention of judges.

Anderson did not take sides on the debate of which approach should be used to keep Minnesota judicial selection nonpartisan. In an apparent nod to the concerns about the public's receptivity to voting reform measures, he urged change proponents to adopt a practical approach with a real hope of passage. He also called on the legal community to unite behind a single approach rather than remain fractured over the issue.

"A divided legal community will assure only one thing -- failure," the chief justice said.

After references throughout his speech of the excellent reputation that the judiciary in Minnesota currently enjoys, Anderson summed up: "Together, we have built one of the best court systems in the world here in Minnesota, one of the most efficient, most professional, and most innovative. Minnesota has a lot to lose. Let it not be said that it was lost on our watch."

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