Touting a commitment to apply the law fairly and independently, and an eagerness to go above and beyond in protecting court funding access, Ramsey County judicial candidate Howard Orenstein is looking to repeat his first-place primary finish on Nov. 4. The St. Paul resident, assistant Hennepin County Attorney, and former state legislator, is facing off against Gail Chang Bohr, executive director of the Minnesota Children’s Law Center, for a six-year term to replace retiring Judge John Finley for a rare opening on the 29-member Ramsey County bench.
Orenstein says he spends most of his time on direct voter contact, emphasizing his own qualifications and avoiding contentious political questions or even commenting on his differences from Bohr. He does cite his primary win, victory in a recent plebiscite of the Ramsey County Bar Association and his designation as the sole “qualified” candidate by Minnesota Women Lawyers. Orenstein’s campaign also boasts the endorsement of over fifty-five local current and former elected officials, including Congresswoman Betty McCollum (DFL-St. Paul) and Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner.
Mostly, Orenstein stresses the diversity of his work, as an assistant district attorney and in private practice, experience as a law professor at Hamline University and time on the House Judiciary Committee. Orenstein was part of the team representing Minnesota that won massive litigation against big tobacco. He talks about a commitment to fair application of existing law rather than policy decisions, but also envisions the role as advocate for court access and adequate funding.
“I grew up during the Civil Rights movement, and was always taught by my family that the law is an instrument of justice,” Orenstein says. We need a strong and independent judicial branch if we want a just society. The judicial branch in Minnesota is under attack right now because of a lack of funding.”
Orenstein cites the reinforcement of barriers class, immigration and language barriers that comes with cuts to translation services, juror fees and the public defender’s office as areas of concern that he would seek to address as a judge.
“The most important role for a judge is to preside the cases fairly,” he says. “That’s your day job and you have to do it well. But the great judges also put n a lot of time on nights and weekends out in the community, educating people about funding shortages and making sure the community understands what’s going on with the judicial branch.”
Though an experienced campaigner, Orenstein says he’s adapted to differences in the scale of the district and nature of the office from his days as a legislator.
“It’s a different conversation at the door with people,” Orenstein says. “As a legislative candidate, you tell them what party you’re from and what kinds of laws you’d like to enact or change. We don’t talk about party, or any contested policy issue, but I do tell people about my background.”
“It’s a challenge reaching hundreds of thousands of people. It’s different from a legislative house district that’s basically my neighborhood – you cannot do that across all of Ramsey County. I accept that as a limitation, and I’m working my hardest to reach as many people as I can.”
Orenstein’s record as a policymaker and work with anti-gun violence group Citizens for a Safer Minnesota has drawn criticism from pro-gun activists, some of whom are now mobilizing against his judicial campaign.
“People can research my legislative record, and research my record on policy issues,” Orenstein says. “I was elected five times by the voters of my district. As a judge, I don’t make policy decisions, I apply the law.”
David Seitz is a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, studying political science, gender studies and American studies. As a writer, activist and student, he is interested in anti-racist, feminist, and queer approaches to community journalism, politics, spirituality and social geography. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org