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Here’s who’s running in Minnesota’s four contested district court judge elections

Always, always flip your ballot.

gavel
Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

Ever arrive at your polling place, get your ballot and find a race or two you hadn’t studied up on?

If so, there’s a good chance that race was for a judge. Many Minnesotans forget judges are elected in the state, except on the occasions they’re asked to vote for them.

When there’s a vacancy on one of Minnesota’s judicial benches, the governor appoints someone to fill the position.

By custom, the governor chooses district court appointees who have been vetted by the state’s Commission on Judicial Selection, a panel of attorneys and non-attorneys from each of the state’s 10 judicial districts that evaluates candidates based on their “integrity, maturity, health if job related, judicial temperament, diligence, legal knowledge, ability and experience, and community service.”

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Once appointed, though, the judge is required to stand for re-election in the next general election held more than a year after their swearing in, and then every six years after that. Unlike your typical partisan contest, judges both officially and customarily don’t run under a party banner. On the ballot, there’s no “Republican” or “Democratic Farmer-Labor” next to candidates’ names, only “incumbent” next to the name of the person seeking to reclaim their seat.

This year, apart from the Minnesota Supreme Court, where the race between sitting Justice Paul Thissen and perennial challenger Michelle MacDonald is on the ballot (you can read about that race here), there are four races across the state where voters are being asked to choose between two judicial candidates.

Here, we put a couple questions to the candidates and take a look at their backgrounds.

District 1, Court 32

(On the ballot in Carver, Dakota, Goodhue, Le Sueur, McLeod, Scott, and Sibley counties)

Incumbent: Judge Joseph Carter (Appointed in 2001)

Judge Joseph Carter
Judge Joseph Carter
Background: Carter’s legal career began at Southern Minnesota Legal Services, which provides legal aid to low-income people. He became assistant Scott County attorney, then a staff attorney at Hyatt Legal Services before becoming assistant public defender in the Second Judicial District, then chief public defender in the First Judicial District. He was appointed to the bench in 2001.

In addition to a law degree, Carter has a master’s degree in social work.

What are the most important qualities a judge should possess? 

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Carter: “I think probably the most important quality is to be fair, and to approach each case with an open mind. Litigants come before the court with all types of problems. They also come before the court under stress and so I think a judge should be fair, neutral, detached, impartial and also willing to listen. Listening to the litigants is very important because even if the decision doesn’t go their way they can leave feeling as if they’ve been heard and that’s important.

Why should a voter cast their ballot for you versus your opponent?

Carter: “I think voters should look at the candidates’ experience and they should know who their judges are. So for example, my opponent, very few people know who he is, what he stands for, and I think [he] is running on the idea that judges should be elected. Well I have been elected … including a prior contested election, and my background was vetted when I became a judge.”

Endorsements: Carter is endorsed by many former Minnesota justices and judges (sitting judges don’t typically make endorsements in campaigns), and the Academy of Certified Trial Lawyers of Minnesota.

Carter’s campaign committee website can be found here.

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Challenger: Martin ‘Marty’ Judge

Judge did not respond to emails or voicemails requesting an interview for this piece.

Martin ‘Marty’ Judge
Martin ‘Marty’ Judge
Background: Judge’s campaign committee website describes more than 25 years in private practice, and work with the American Arbitration Association since 2004. His law practice, Judge Law Firm, focuses on personal injury cases.

Endorsements: Judge’s campaign website does not list endorsements.

Judge’s campaign committee website can be found here.

District 2, Court 8

(On the ballot in Ramsey County)

Incumbent: Judge Pat Diamond (Appointed in 2012)

Background: After graduating from law school, Diamond clerked for a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, spent three years in private practice, then took a yearlong academic appointment to teach legal research and writing at the University of Chicago Law school. He worked as chief deputy in the Hennepin County attorney’s office and was appointed to the bench in 2012. As judge, he’s worked as the leader of the juvenile family division. He serves as the lead Ramsey County judge in treatment court.

What are the most important qualities a judge should possess? 

Judge Pat Diamond
Judge Pat Diamond
Diamond: “They should be experienced, and have a wide variety of experiences in the law. They should be able to know their way around the courtroom … I think they should have the ability to understand the law at a level that’s deep enough to understand [how] the law applies to the facts of the case in front of them and also how that application has implications that might reverberate out through the community. I think a good judge needs to be compassionate, needs to run a courtroom that’s welcoming and protects the rights of everyone in front of them and have an absolute sense of fairness, that that has to be unwavering.”

Why should a voter cast their ballot for you versus your opponent?

Diamond: “I have a track record of running a welcoming and very fair courtroom that protects the rights of everyone involved. I have a track record of having addressed the racial and other disparities that plague both our community and our justice system. Now, more than ever in this pandemic, I have a commitment to access … It’s one thing to figure out how to get people to appear in court. It’s another thing to make sure that appearance is fair and protects their rights. I think I have all of that experience combined with a track record of having done these in the past and being ready for the challenges of the future.”

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Endorsements: Diamond is endorsed by many former Minnesota justices and judges (sitting judges don’t typically make endorsements in campaigns), and the Academy of Certified Trial Lawyers of Minnesota.

Diamond’s website can be found here. His Minnesota Bar Association questionnaire can be found here.

Challenger: Ngozi Akubuike

A volunteer for Akubuike’s campaign declined an interview request on the candidate’s behalf, citing the loss of a family member and the need to make funeral arrangements.

Ngozi Akubuike
Ngozi Akubuike
Background: Akubuike studied law in Nigeria, then worked in banking before moving to the U.S. and graduating from Mitchell Hamline School of Law, according to her campaign committee website. She has worked as a law clerk for Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, as a law clerk and attorney in Scott County, and as an Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator and legal manager for the state of Minnesota, according to her Minnesota Bar Association questionnaire. She now works as an independent attorney and as an attorney and administrator for Hope Alive for Vision Empowerment Network (HAVEN), the website for which says it “provides support and referral services, including mental health and transitional housing, to crime victims.” She also holds a master’s degree in public affairs.

Endorsements: Akubuike’s campaign website does not list endorsements.

Akubuike’s campaign committee website can be found here. Her Minnesota Bar Association questionnaire can be found here.

District 9, Court 4

(On the ballot in Aitkin, Beltrami, Cass, Clearwater, Crow Wing, Hubbard, Itasca, Kittson, Koochiching, Lake of the Woods, Mahnomen, Marshall, Norman, Pennington, Polk, Red Lake and Roseau counties)

Incumbent: Judge Charles Halverson (Appointed in 2018)

Background: Halverson has clerked in the Ninth Judicial District, worked in private practice at Borden, Steinbauer and Krueger and at Halverson Law Office, and was the assistant and managing attorney in the Ninth District public defender’s office before being appointed to the bench in 2018.

What are the most important qualities a judge should possess? 

Halverson: “A judge needs to be a good listener. A judge needs to [be] able to filter through and get to what’s really the underlying issue in most cases. And a lot of what we deal with are people who don’t have attorneys, so it’s sometimes more difficult to really wade through it, find out what really the issue is. To be able to make a decision consistent with the law, and be able to convey what you decide so that people understand how and why you got there. Most people, if they understand part of the reason why the decision you make and how it’s supported by the law are far more willing to accept it. But you make people feel as comfortable as you can in your courtroom. You let them know that their issues, their voice matters, and you give them an opportunity to be heard.”

Judge Charles Halverson
Judge Charles Halverson
Why should a voter cast their ballot for you versus your opponent? 

“I have about 20 more years experience than my opponent. I believe that I am more qualified in terms of my experience. I believe I’m more qualified in the depth of my experience. My opponent has only worked as a public defender and a prosecutor, and most of that time as a prosecutor. He really doesn’t have clients … I’ve had a long-term connection with a lot of people; have helped people, so I understand where people are at. And I understand when people can get into trouble [and] sometimes what can help get them out. And I’ve worked in family cases, I’ve done civil work, I’ve done child protection work. He can’t claim that he has anywhere close to that level of experience.”

Endorsements: Halverson’s campaign committee website includes testimonials by law school classmate Rep. Tom Emmer (R), former Minnesota Rep. John Ward (DFL) and retired district court judge John Solien. He was endorsed by the Academy of Certified Trial Lawyers of Minnesota.

Halverson’s campaign committee website can be found here.

Challenger: Benjamin Lindstrom

Lindstrom did not respond to emails or voicemails requesting an interview for this piece.

Benjamin Lindstrom
Benjamin Lindstrom
Background: Lindstrom currently works as the Cass County Attorney, a position he was appointed to in 2017, according to the Brainerd Dispatch, and was subsequently re-elected to. His campaign committee website describes work in the Fourth Judicial District, the Brainerd Public Defender’s office, and as assistant Cass County attorney.

Lindstrom’s campaign committee website can be found here.

District 9, Court 19

(On the ballot in Aitkin, Beltrami, Cass, Clearwater, Crow Wing, Hubbard, Itasca, Kittson, Koochiching, Lake of the Woods, Mahnomen, Marshall, Norman, Pennington, Polk, Red Lake and Roseau counties)

Incumbent: Judge Jana Austad (Appointed in 2013)

Background: Austad’s campaign website describes private practice work in township law, family law and workers compensation at Keif, Fuller, Baer, Wallner and Rodgers. She then worked as managing attorney for the Brainerd Regional Office of the State Public Defender and was appointed to the bench in 2013. She was elected Assistant Chief Judge for the Ninth Judicial District by district judges. She also serves as co-judge for the Cass County/ Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe joint jurisdiction wellness court.

What are the most important qualities a judge should possess? 

Austad cited the qualities the judicial selection committee uses to vet candidates (integrity, maturity, health if job related, judicial temperament, diligence, legal knowledge, ability and experience, and community service) as qualities judges should possess.

Judge Jana Austad
Judge Jana Austad
Austad: “One of the things that I’m very troubled by in terms of the language surrounding the election that I’m in  … hearing things like ‘take our courts back’, or ‘make our courts great again, ‘we need a judge to reflect our values’ is troubling, because the values of the judicial system need to be the laws that have already been passed … The judge’s job is, by oath, to apply the law.”

Why should a voter cast their ballot for you versus your opponent? 

Austad said the breadth of her legal experience makes her a good candidate. “It is civil and private, criminal and public. It has involved work as a lawyer, but also my time as a stay at home mom,” she said. She cited work on a Supreme Court rules of evidence advisory committee, as a co-judge for the Cass County/Leech Lake wellness court and as a liaison judge on the Northwest Minnesota Juvenile Training Center board as examples of her work while on the bench.

“So not only have I been a judge, but I’ve continued to volunteer and work in areas that I think strengthen and grow the judiciary in ways that are responsive to the community,” she said.

Endorsements: Austad’s campaign website does not list endorsements. She is endorsed by the Academy of Certified Trial Lawyers of Minnesota.

Austad’s campaign committee website can be found here.

James Hughes

Background: Hughes is listed as an attorney at the Regional Native Public Defense Corporation, which provides public defenders for White Earth and Leech Lake members facing criminal charges. He told MinnPost he is the executive director and represents clients in court.

James Hughes
James Hughes
What are the most important qualities a judge should possess?

Hughes: “Judges need to have significant legal knowledge, obviously, but I think judges also need to have a good temperament or they need to treat people fairly. Judges, I believe, need to treat people respectfully in the courtroom. Overall it’s a situation where I believe good judges should be restrained in how they practice the power that the Constitution has given to them. So I do favor a concept called judicial restraint and I think good judges restrain themselves and limit their power to that which the Constitution gives them and nothing else.”

Why should a voter cast their ballot for you versus your opponent? 

Hughes: “I think that I am the judicial candidate who probably best embodies the type of qualities in a judge that northern Minnesotans want. As I had mentioned, I do believe in judicial restraint. I do believe in following the law as it was written and in limiting the power that as a judge, I would have on the bench. And I believe that that is a legal value or a set of legal values that most in northern Minnesota would adopt for themselves. So as a as a candidate for the bench, I believe I’m the better choice.”

Endorsements: Hughes’ campaign committee website does not list endorsements.

Hughes’ campaign committee website can be found here.