Judicial selection changes proposed

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A bill to reform the judicial selection process passed its first legislative hurdle.

The House Governmental Operations, Reform, Technology and Elections Committee approved HF3023 Feb. 26 and referred it to the House Public Safety and Civil Justice Committee.

Sponsored by Rep. Steve Simon (DFL-St. Louis Park), the bill would amend the Minnesota Constitution to make the governor responsible for the initial appointment of judges, for a term that lasts until the end of the next general election year held more than three years after the appointment.

All sitting judges would be evaluated once during their term, and once near the end of their term by a performance evaluation commission that would rate the judge as “qualified” or “unqualified” for office. This provision is meant to assist voters in evaluating the performance of judges. After their initial term, a judge may be retained in office through a retention election, where voters would be asked if a judge should be retained, rather than choose between individual candidates.

“Judges, like any of us, need accountability,” Simon said.

Simon used baseball to demonstrate how campaigning for judicial positions and collecting partisan endorsements places judicial candidates in a position of campaigning on judicial outcomes, harming the impartiality of their position.

“Judges are not catchers or pitchers or batters, judges are umpires,” Simon said. “We would never think of putting in an umpire who said to Major League Baseball, ‘Put me in the game and I’ll make sure the Yankees win,’ or ‘Put me in the game and I’ll make sure the Red Sox win.’”

Former House Speaker Phil Carruthers, now an assistant Ramsey County attorney, cautioned against reforming the judicial selection process.

“Changing the constitution should be the last resort, not the first resort. If we change the constitution without knowing exactly what we are doing, we will be stuck with the result for the next 150 years,” Carruthers said.

A companion bill, SF2401, sponsored by Sen. Ann Rest (DFL-New Hope), awaits action by the Senate State and Local Government Operations and Oversight Committee.

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