Commentary

Justice should not be for sale

The case for an impartial judiciary

There are all kinds of major issues facing our state in the coming legislative session. While the issue of an independent and impartial judiciary is not getting a lot of press, it is worth our attention.

Because a United States Supreme Court decision (White vs. Republican Party of Minnesota) in 2002 struck down some portions of Minnesota’s judicial rules, citizens need to proactively find ways to address risks in how we select, retain, and replace District, Appeal, and State Supreme Court justices. The White decision and a subsequent Eighth District Court of Appeals decision stripped away several ethical values that had provided guidance for the appointment and election of state judges.

Southwestern Minnesota Synod ELCA Bishop Jon Anderson

Southwestern Minnesota Synod ELCA Bishop Jon Anderson

You may not be aware that, because of these federal court decisions, “Minnesota judicial candidates may now :

* announce their views of legal and political issues;

* announce their party affiliations;

* seek, accept, and use party endorsements;

* address party gatherings such as conventions;

* directly ask for campaign contributions to groups of 20 or more.”

(Joint Religious Legislative Coalition)

The world of judicial elections is changing fast. Without action, Minnesota risks a future like Wisconsin, where judicial races have become highly politicized, extremely expensive (millions of dollars are being spent at times), and where the perception that justice is for sale has grown as judges are required to gather large campaign contribution war chests. There are horror stories to be shared from Illinois, Texas, and other states.

Having judges competing in campaign promises or using attack advertisements on each other has not built trust or helped the confidence of those who must use the judicial systems of those states. Research the West Virginia Caperton case to see the dilemmas more deeply.

A new possibility for judicial selection

There is no perfect way to select and retain judges, but there are better and worse ways. In the court decision, the free speech of an individual candidate was seen as more important than the Minnesota tradition of non-partisan elections. The League of Women Voters of Minnesota argues that “Competing elements must be balanced: independence and impartiality on the one hand, and accountability on the other.” Our right to free speech is a crucial right. The right to an impartial, competent, fair and independent judiciary is equally important.

We need to build a bi-partisan consensus for the path forward so that we can continue the Minnesota tradition of a strong, healthy, competent, independent, and impartial judiciary. The Citizens Commission for the Preservation of an Impartial Judiciary chaired by former Governor Al Quie proposes that we adopt a new constitutional amendment to protect our judiciary. It is built around merit selection and retention elections. The League of Women Voters in Minnesota studied this issue and supports the commission’s principles.

The Joint Religious Legislative Coalition (JRLC) also supports these two groups’ recommendations. JRLC is made up of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the Minnesota Council of Churches, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, and the Islamic Center of Minnesota. The key principles supported by the JRLC are:

1. Merit nominations by a merit selection commission;

2. Gubernatorial appointment from a list of candidates prepared by the commission;

3. Performance evaluation by a performance evaluation commission;

4. Retention elections by the public.

( JRLC – 2/19/08)

The 2010 legislative session

Legislative bills have been introduced in the Minnesota legislature based on JRLC’s principles: Senate File 70 and House File 224. The Web addresses below will give you more details of the Citizens Group’s proposals and efforts of other groups.

We are called to be stewards of all that God has given us. As disciples of Jesus, living in a constitutional democracy, we are also called to be stewards of our society. That is why we need to encourage our legislative system to make decisions to protect and sustain our impartial and independent judicial system. The judicial system touches our lives in all kinds of important ways.

Conservative and liberal people agree that they want our judicial system to be one that attracts the highest quality people who serve the public fairly. However we do it, we want Minnesota to continue to be a place where we have to explain the “Parable of the Unjust Judge” because our judges and our judicial system work so hard to be fair and just. (Luke 18:1-8)

For further information, visit these non-partisan Web sites:

* www.jrlc.org/images/stories/IssuePapers/impartialjudges.pdf

* www.impartialcourts.org/

* www.lwvmn.org/EdFund/LWVMNEFJudicialSelection UpdateReport.pdf

* www.mnbar.org/committees/judiciary/

Jon Anderson is the bishop of the Southwest Minnesota Synod of the ELCA. The synod is comprised of congregations in 29 counties in the the southwestern part of the state, from Jackson, Minnesota, north to Becker and then west to Ortonville.

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