As Minnesota’s secretary of state, I took pride in our state’s tradition of civic participation. Minnesotans of all political persuasions understand that, whether we’re choosing a president or a state legislator, we deserve a government that truly represents us. And we are willing to do the hard work democracy demands in order to achieve it.
Although we do not directly elect the members of our judicial branch of government the same way we do the members of the executive and legislative branch, we expect the same when it comes to judges. Regardless of our political persuasions, we all want judges who rely on their experience and their study of the law, not their ideological priors. And we all trust that, if we are involved in a legal proceeding, we will feel comfortable that the judge who decides our case both understands our own unique perspective and also fairly represents the best of our collective wisdom and expertise.
This is especially important when it comes to our federal appeals courts. These courts are the last stop before the Supreme Court, and their decisions affect every aspect of our lives, from our rights at work to our civil rights to our health care.
The Stras nomination
That is why the controversy over the nomination of Justice David Stras to serve on the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals matters so much. Democrats have noted that, despite his relative youth, Stras has already established himself as a conservative legal thinker – and so, too, have conservatives, who have put him on a shortlist of future Supreme Court justices they believe will reliably support their far-right agenda.
Indeed, in their rush to pack our courts with activist conservative judges, President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans have cast aside long-held procedures that were designed to protect the impartiality of the federal bench, including the “blue slip” process that allows home-state senators participate in selecting judges who best represent their states’ citizens. This dangerous trend is part of the reason why, like former Vice President Walter Mondale and many others, I applaud Sen. Al Franken for taking a stand against inappropriate politicization of the judiciary by opposing Justice Stras’ nomination.
But that is only part of the story. The Trump administration’s continuing refusal to consult with home-state senators before nominating judges threatens to make our courts not just more partisan, but less representative.
Women remain underrepresented
I was elected secretary of state at a time when women were rarely allowed to achieve positions of political leadership. Today, of course, the idea of a woman holding statewide office is far from revolutionary. But women remain underrepresented in leadership positions – and when it comes to our legal system, there is reason to worry that, with Trump in the White House, the problem is getting worse, not better.
It took more than 100 years before a woman, District Court Judge Diana Murphy, was named to sit on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Murphy would remain the only woman on the court for nearly two decades, and with her move to senior status this year, the 11-judge panel will again be left with only a single female jurist in active status. This contrasts sharply with our Minnesota state court system where we have a proud history of women serving our state well from the bench — from Rosalie Wahl to the current majority-women Minnesota Supreme Court.
Like that of every other state, Minnesota’s legal community boasts many high-quality women of all political stripes in positions of leadership. But three times since he took office, President Trump has had an opportunity to nominate one of these women to the Eighth Circuit, and three times, he has chosen not to do so.
Part of a pattern for Trump
This is part of a pattern. For example, Trump has nominated 42 people to serve as U.S. attorneys for districts across the country, only one of whom is a woman. And this exclusionary practice is not only unfair to the many capable female attorneys who are being repeatedly passed over – it is unfair to everyone who comes before the court and every Minnesotan whose rights are affected when this panel issues its rulings.
After all, we need the highest possible quality people in these positions of great importance – the wisest, the fairest, those most capable of making seismic decisions on behalf of the entire citizenry. It seems unlikely that so few women qualify. Moreover, diversity on the bench is critical in helping the court understand the many different kinds of experiences and perspectives represented in cases that come before it.
In other words, for us to continue to have faith in our judicial system, we must be confident not only that it is free from partisan influence, but that it truly represents us – that the judiciary looks like the people it serves.
Trump’s disregard for the long-established safeguards governing our judicial nomination process will not bolster that confidence. But Franken’s bold commitment to restoring those protections can. By objecting to Stras’ nomination, he is laying down a marker to declare that we must return to careful bipartisan consideration of potential judges. Only such a return to form will ensure that our judiciary is independent, fair – and representative of the diverse and engaged state I have been so proud to serve.
Joan Growe is a former Minnesota secretary of state, serving from 1975 to 1999.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)