A majority of Minnesotans will follow this year’s hotly contested election campaigns, will know most of the candidates, and will turn out to vote in November.
But Minnesota has some electoral contests that are complete shams. In these, unlike the bar in Cheers, nobody knows your name if you’re a candidate, and you do not wish to be associated with the electoral process. In fact, while the Republican Party has endorsed candidates for these races, none will accept that endorsement.
I am speaking, of course, about our judicial “elections.” Minnesota is now confronting, for the first time in almost a century, elections in which candidates for judge can be endorsed by political parties, seek special-interest money, run television ads on electoral issues—and presumably, be held accountable by the groups and individuals who fund their campaigns.
In Illinois, a single state supreme court race set a national fundraising record of more than $9.3 million. The ultimate winner called the entire campaign “obscene.”
Alabama just finished its primary election in early June. Four of the candidates running for state supreme court seats identified themselves as “Roy Moore” candidates. You may recall that Moore was the Alabama chief justice removed from office for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the court building in Montgomery. Since 1993, candidates for the Alabama Supreme Court have raised more than $42.6 million. (Documentation of the growth of judicial campaigns like these can be found at www.justiceatstake.org.)
In August 2005, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals declared unconstitutional Minnesota’s rules forbidding judges from engaging in partisan electoral activities. On appeal in January (an appeal that was rejected), Minnesota was supported by the American Bar Association, the Conference of State Chief Justices, and 39 of the nation’s largest corporations, including Dow Chemical, General Electric, General Motors, Johnson & Johnson, Time Warner, and Wal-Mart.
We elect legislators and members of the executive branch of government to establish and implement policies. Those elections should be free, open, and hard fought, and voters, interest groups, and political parties should hold candidates accountable to the policies those candidates espouse during the campaign.
But judges are different. Judges are accountable not to political parties or to those who fund their elections, but instead to the Constitution. An independent judiciary is essential to safeguard our property rights and individual liberty. Courts must be the counterbalance to the political charlatans of the momentary passion. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist Papers, an independent judiciary is a necessary “barrier to the encroachments and oppressions of the representative body.”
Former Minnesota Governor Al Quie and former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz have both spoken out against partisan elections for judicial offices. Quie currently heads a commission that is examining changes to our judicial selection process.
I invite you to join in that process, or else be continually confronted with voting for candidates you—not to mention the general electorate—know nothing about, in elections bought and paid for by groups who do not want impartiality.
I look forward to your response.
A Supporter of an Independent Judiciary,
Vance K. Opperman