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Monday, May 12, 2008

High court puts community outreach into high gear

The filing period for judicial elections (and, of course, other state elections as well) starts in about six weeks. Candidates must file with the Secretary of State between July 1 and 15. But campaign season appears to have already begun -- at least for the two Minnesota Supreme Court justices up for election this year.

As we mentioned in a post Friday, Justices Paul Anderson and Lorie Gildea -- the two members of the high court whose names will appear on the 2008 ballot -- have taken visible public roles in this week's Sesquicentennial festivities. Anderson will be impersonating a 19th century high court justices at various events; Gildea not only is portraying the state's first justice (who happens to have been, not surprisingly for the time, a man), but also is taking on a second role portraying the state's first woman lawyer. In the spirit of the first role, she even agreed to ride a horse.

Now, I can't say for sure there is an election tie in. For example, I have little doubt that Anderson -- who is well-known as a court history buff and as the high court's goodwill ambassador at public events -- would not have to be asked twice to be a part of something like this. And perhaps Gildea has always wanted to ride a horse in period costume during a parade, for all I know. But there is little doubt that these public platforms afford the justices an opportunity to be seen by John (and Jane) Q. Public, who don't often get over to the Minnesota Judicial Center to see the high court in action.

Even putting election-year politicking aside, it's no secret that the state high court has increased its community outreach efforts substantially over recent years. Former Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz made this a priority as part of the courts' efforts to educate the public on its role -- and Chief Justice Russell Anderson has continued those efforts. Outreach efforts have included holding oral arguments "on the road" in locations throughout the state, including high schools and law schools. (Hopkins High School last week hosted an oral argument, for example.)

The efficacy of the outreach efforts is difficult to quantify -- and, despite all past efforts, the judiciary remains by far the most misunderstood branch of government. Nonetheless, I think that it's an important part of the judicial function to at least try to bring a better understanding to the general public. While donning ancient jurist garb and riding a horse or strolling around the Capitol grounds may on its face have limited utility in fulfilling this function, a few folks may just get curious enough to start boning up on these robe-clad individuals who make up a third of their government. If it does that, I suppose wearing cowboy boots is a small price for a justice to pay ...


Anonymous said...

Justice Gildea is actually a very accomplished equestrian and I believe she shows quarter horses as a hobby. I'm sure she's totally getting a kick out of the riding role (no pun intended). I don't attach any primary underlying election agenda - from either Dems or Republicans - with any of the Court's community outreach events; the Court does alot in nonelection years, too.

Mark Cohen, editor said...

Thanks. I actually think its a good thing the justices are participating in these kind of activities. I wasn't implying that the courts' community outreach is done only for election purposes. The high school visits, for example, have been going on for years now, and presumably don't translate to a lot of votes ...

With the state's judges ultimately accountable to the people, I think it's a good idea to let the people get to meet them every now and again.

As for Justices Anderson and Gildea, I do think they are being good sports for participating -- and, like you, I suspect that neither of them had to be dragged kicking and screaming into this ...