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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Is the Missouri plan needed here? 'Show me,' some say

I wrote yesterday about the Star Tribune's editorial endorsing the recommendation of the Quie Commission majority that Minnesota switch to a retention system for judicial elections (also called the "Missouri plan" after the state that originated the concept). Not everybody is happy with that idea, of course. One group I mentioned in yesterday's piece is the Quie Commission minority, which believes eliminating judicial elections altogether and going with an appointment-based system is the better route. Many of those in support of the appointments-based approach have said they will go with retention-elections if that is path ultimately chosen by the majority of reformers.

The bigger roadblock for would-be reformers will be opposition from those who don't think change is necessary is all -- the "It ain't broke, so don't fix it" crowd. Many District Court judges, for example, are not sold on the idea of retention elections, which could still be used by special interest groups to knock a judge out of office if he or she decides a case against the group's particular interest. All the group would have to do is pour large amounts of money into a negative campaign targeting the judge, members of the trial court bench have pointed out.

Burton Randall Hanson, a former deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Supreme Court, wrote a thoughtful piece on his blog, The Daily Judge, eviscerating the Strib editorial. Hanson, who waged an ultimately unsuccessful campaign for a high-court seat in 2000, raises a point I have not heard much discussion about -- i.e. whether or not retention elections have led to a higher quality bench in Missouri. Here in Minnesota where judges generally are -- to paraphrase Garrison Keillor -- all above average, are we sure the same can be said of our sister state with the retention system? Hanson thinks not. I am not familiar enough with the bench of the "Show Me" state to have much of an opinion on that, but it's worth pondering.