Minnesota debates merit selection, House committee advances constitutional amendment for 2014 ballot

Yesterday’s hearing on bringing merit selection to Minnesota courts focused mostly on disagreements with a particular judge’s rulings in family and custody matters.

Minnesota HB 1083 is a constitutional amendment and statute that goes into effect if the amendment is approved. Creates merit selection system for all judges in state. Requires judges up for retention election be subject to judicial performance evaluation commission.

The testimony yesterday before the House Elections committee focused on just the retention election portion; the other provisions would be debated in other committees.

50 minutes of testimony was heard on the bill (audio is available here) from several people:

  • Representative Steve Simon, the lead sponsor of the bill (0:31-5:45): The impact on Republican Party of Minnesota v. White which struck down various restrictions on judge’s ability to make statements in campaigns. Cited to Wisconsin and other states where millions of dollars were spent on judicial elections.
  • Sarah Walker, President of the Coalition for Impartial Justice (5:45-10:30): Large amounts of money are coming into elections in other states and justice in Minnesota should not be for sale. 90% of Minnesota judges run unopposed; yes/no retention elections would mean elections 100% of the time.
  • Rep. Steve Simon (10:30-12:00): Oral amendment striking section 14 of the bill dealing with funding for judicial performance commission.
  • Tad Jude, 10th District Court Judge (12:00-15:30): Merit selection disenfranchises those who are not part of the establishment. There is no problem in Minnesota and there are states with retention elections with high-dollar campaigns.
  • Eric Magnuson, Chief Justice of Minnesota from 2008-2010, former chair of Commission on Judicial Selection (15:30-18:30): The system needs to change now before the public trust and confidence in the courts is eroded after White and Citizens United. The judicial performance evaluation system that is part of the bill will give voters information.
  • Sandra Grazzini, litigant in several domestic relations cases (18:30-22:00): Judicial elections mean judicial accountability. Recitation of complaints against family court judicial rulings against her.
  • Sherry Knute, League of Women Voter’s Minnesota (22:00-24:30): 2007 study by LWV. Need for accountability of judges, but also impartiality and balance. Support for merit selection, performance evaluation, and retention elections.
  • Andrea Rowe, Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (24:30-26:30): The ability of people to vote is important and opposes premise that citizen’s are not qualified to pick their judges and removes judicial accountability to unaccountable political appointees.
  • Kate Johansen, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce (26:30-28:45): Chamber supports “Quie Commission”, which recommended merit selection. Retention elections means less money and less pressure on judges. Judges should be arbiters, not advocates. Lower public confidence where there are contested elections.
  • Teresa Warner, Chief Judge for Ramsey County speaking for Minnesota District Judge’s Association (28:45-33:00): Judge’s Association was opposed to retention elections, now in favor if certain provisions are included in the bill, specifically 1) constitutionally created judicial performance evaluation commission not subject to control of other branches 2) uniform election system and mandatory merit selection for all judges 3) dedicated funding for performance evaluation that will not be used to influence evaluations. Was in favor on section 14 of the bill before it was removed.
  • Bonnie Roy, litigant in several domestic relations cases (33:00-36:30): Recitation of complaints against family court judicial rulings against her. Testimony focused on judicial discipline.
  • Dale Nathan, attorney (36:30-40:15): Concerns over judicial nominating commission. Claims commission will only approve judges who make decisions favoring the powerful. Comparison of commission to Hitler’s ascent in Germany, the Holocaust, China, and the Soviet Union.
  • Tom Prichard, Minnesota Family Council (40:15-42:15): Retention elections leads to unaccountable judiciary and abuse of power by judiciary. Judicial elections put in Minnesota constitution because of Dred Scott decision. Whatever negatives there are in contested elections are offset by need for accountability to people.
  • Tim Kinley, Our Kids Minnesota (42:15-45:00): Recitation of complaints against family court judicial rulings. Will never give up right to vote. Taking away only piece of accountability against judges. Comparison to voter ID laws: both keep people from voting. Buying access to nominating commission.
  • Greg Wersal, lead plaintiff in White cases (45:00-47:30): Retention elections will result in less qualified judges, won’t stop money from coming it. Use of merit selection in Minnesota will mean state losing its U.S. House of Representatives seats under Section 2 of the 14th Amendment as it deprives people of the right to vote. Lawsuit to be filed in Missouri based on this soon.
  • Rep. Steve Simon, sponsor (47:30-49:30): 90% of judges do not face opposition. If you want to hold judges accountable to voters, ensure voters have a chance 100% of the time to vote on a judge via yes/no retention elections.

The bill was approved on a voice vote and sent to the House Judiciary Finance and Policy Committee.

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