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Friday, September 5, 2008

Court issues complete constitutional opinion on Clark's case

The Minnesota Supreme Court has issued a 35-page per curiam opinion in the case of Clark v. Pawlenty, Jill Clark’s challenge to the election procedures governing the upcoming Supreme Court race. Clark is challenging incumbent Lorie Gildea, along with Hennepin County District Court Judge Deborah Hedlund and attorney Richard Gallo.

The court –actually a specially designated panel, since the sitting court recused itself--last month denied Clark’s request to strike Gildea from the ballot or at least strike the incumbent designation. Clark argued that Gildea, as an appointed justice, was barred by the Minnesota Constitution from running for election to retain her seat. She also argued that the appointed justice should not be designated an incumbent and that the use of the incumbent designation was prohibited by Minn. Stat. sec. 204B.35 as well as the state and federal constitution. A full opinion was issued today.

The court’s opinion addresses the primary election and the general election separately. Addressing first the primary challenge, the court denied the petition on the grounds of laches. “[I]n the absence of the relief requested, petitioner Clark has not been barred from the primary ballot and petitioner [Heather] Robins will not be barred from voting for her (or any other candidate on the primary ballot). Given petitioners’ unreasonable delay in asserting the interpretations of the constitution and election statutes that they espouse here, and balanced against the significant potential prejudice to other candidates, and to the electorate, we conclude that it would be inequitable to grant the relief sought by petitioners with respect to the primary ballot even if we were to conclude that their arguments had merit. Accordingly we deny the petition on grounds of laches with respect to the primary ballot,” the court said.

The court then decided it would address the general election in advance of the primary results, in the interests of judicial economy and to remove uncertainty from the election process.
It then turned to Article VI, sec. 8 of the Minnesota Constitution, which says that when a judge is appointed to fill a vacancy, the “successor” must be elected at the next general election occurring more than one year after the appointment. The court declined to interpret “successor” as excluding the appointed judge currently holding the seat.

It also said that under the common usage of the word “incumbent,” Gildea could be designated an incumbent even though she was appointed to the seat. The court also concluded that the petitioner did not present any facts supporting her argument that the designation “incumbent” conferred an advantage, let alone an unconstitutional advantage. “[T]he effect of the challenged provisions on the asserted candidate and voter rights is no more than de minimis and does not warrant strict scrutiny. The purpose of the incumbent designation—to inform the voters—is sufficient to justify the minimal intrusion, if any, on petitioner’s First Amendment rights. We concluded that petitioners have not established any violation of their First Amendment rights.”
Clark is seeking an injunction from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, the Eighth Circuit justice. She told Minnesota Lawyer today that she is advised that her petition was filed with the Supreme Court on Sept. 3 and is on its way to Alito.

Members of the Supreme Court panel were Acting Chief Justice James Gilbert and Acting Associate Justices Lawrence R. Yetka, Bruce D. Willis, Gordon W. Shumaker and Marilyn B. Rosenbaum.


Anonymous said...

I reviewed the court's opinion with an eye toward assessing how the court dealt with Ms. Clark's challenge to the word "incumbent" being placed next to a justice who was appointed rather than elected. After observing oral argument (as a bystander) this seemed to be Ms. Clark's strongest argument (especially since it the very near past the ballot actually said appointee for justices in Gildea's position). Yet the court's analysis of Ms. Clark's argument is extremely weak. It is nothing more than a series of statements concluding Ms. Clark's interpretation is "erroneous." I fear they did more harm than good. The ad hoc panel should have left well enough alone if they were not prepared to deal with the difficult issues.

timpramas said...

Justice Gildea is the incumbent. Incumbent is commonly understood to mean "currently holding a specified office." Justice Gildea holds the position of Associate Justice. Whether she was appointed or elected is beside the point and the Court was right to determine that Clark's argument was "erroneous." The previous poster thought this argument was "Clark's strongest argument," but that is a reflection on the weakness of her other arguments, not the "strength" of this argument.

Anonymous said...

I disagree. I do not believe that incumbent is "commonly understood to mean 'currently holding a specified office.'" Rather, the incumbency designation is tied to the office, and by consequence the manner in which the officeholder takes office. The Minnesota constitution places a premium on judicial elections, not on appointments. Thus, a person elected to the post of Minnesota Supreme Court Justice is an incumbent when the next election rolls around. A person appointed to the office is an appointee and does not enjoy incumbency status until elected to the post. Perhaps this is why, if the previous anonymous poster is correct, that the ballot previously identified appointees by the more accurate title of appointee. Nonetheless, the previous poster is right. Clark's arguments stink...but this was her strongest one.

Anonymous said...

By the logic of Tim Pramas' argument a person who usurps the office is an incumbent because because that person is "currently holding a specified office."