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In aftermath of MacDonald drama, look for MN GOP to change judicial endorsement policy

Michelle MacDonald
Michelle MacDonald

The Minnesota Republican party appears to be serious about changing the way it handles endorsements of judicial candidates, a move precipitated by the political circus created around Michelle MacDonald’s bid for the state Supreme Court last year.

In a survey taken at the party’s state central committee meeting last weekend, 68 percent of the delegates indicated they wanted a change from the current procedure, which bypasses the party’s nominating committee in favor a special judicial selection committee.  

The survey offered the delegates four options: no change; requiring judicial candidates to go through the traditional nominating committee; making judicial endorsements at the congressional district level; or eliminating judicial endorsements altogether.   

The largest vote getter — 26 percent — was actually in favor of eliminating, which would align the GOP with the DFL’s policy of not making judicial endorsements. 

The seeds of discontent with the Republican selection process were planted a year ago at the state convention in Rochester.  Along with an endorsement for governor and U.S. Senator, the convention endorsed a Supreme Court candidate, attorney Michelle MacDonald.

Unbeknownst to the delegates, however, was MacDonald’s legal history, which included an arrest for drunk driving and an incident of forcible removal from a courtroom during her defense of a client. 

Yet the twenty members of the judicial selection committee did know of MacDonald’s record when they offered her name for endorsement, but a majority of the committee voted to withhold the information from the convention floor. 

What followed was a political mash-up worthy of the Keystone Kops.  The Republican Party did not rescind the endorsement, but it quickly distanced itself from MacDonald, including banning her from the party booth at the State Fair. MacDonald showed up anyway, making sure the media was in attendance as she was removed from the premises.

U.S. Senate candidate Mike McFadden and gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson, who earlier had pledged allegiance to endorsed candidates, were forced to disavow MacDonald.

MacDonald, meanwhile, claimed to receive threatening phone calls from a party insider asking her to step aside.  She filed a complaint against the Republican Party, that was ultimately dismissed.  

As for the drunk driving arrest, MacDonald was eventually found guilty of refusing to take breathalyzer test and speeding, but not the charge of drunk driving.

In November, MacDonald lost the Supreme Court race to David Lillehaug by seven points — but remains a heroine to many in the party who are convinced the judicial system is stacked against them. 

As first reported by Michael Brodkorb, MacDonald has applied with Gov. Dayton’s office to be appointed to the Minnesota Supreme Court to replace retiring Justice Alan Page. 

The Republican Party is taking to steps to ensure that its next political celebrity is known for less controversial reasons.  Although the survey of central committee delegates is only advisory, it’s highly likely that the party’s by-laws on judicial selection will undergo a change the next time Republicans gather for a state convention, which could be as early as this fall. 

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/16/2015 - 09:10 am.

    Change to eliminate

    The 26 percent are right–no endorsement is the best way to go. Partisan judicial elections are a very bad idea.

  2. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 04/16/2015 - 09:36 am.

    Doesn’t she fit right in?

    Michelle MacDonald seems to fit right in with the GOP. A high wire act without much support. Pretty much defines the GOP’s cast of characters who’s specialized ideals focuse on the special few at the top. When are they going to start proving they can govern? Four months have passed now and nothing to show for it. The honeymoon is over.

  3. Submitted by richard owens on 04/16/2015 - 10:06 am.

    Is it possible that “judicial temperament” can be found

    in the Republican ranks?

    If “drive through” decisions ever become procedure, the “already-made-up-my-mind” guys will have a shot.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/17/2015 - 09:32 am.

    The “judicial selection committee”

    should be disbanded regardless as they were 1) not working in the best interests of the party rank and file who were relying on their “judgment,” and 2) did more to discredit the whole concept of judicial endorsements than if the committee had been infiltrated by liberal democrats.

    The truth is, it’s the democrats who want to keep their candidates’ party affiliation hidden from the public because we all know that the public generally disagrees with the liberal activist jurists who have a bad habit if ignoring voters and legislating from the bench.

    Unlike democrats, conservatives actually care who they’re voting for.

  5. Submitted by Don Evanson on 04/17/2015 - 02:47 pm.

    Brucato’s “reporting” is some less colorful than Sally Jo Sorenson’s blogging, but, nevertheless, she competes pretty well. Her column here reveals her biases and the biases of her sources. Speaking of color, wouldn’t the reporting of this column best be labeled as yellow?

    Let’s start with trying to put judicial issues in the perspective of current issues. It has been announced that Justice Page of the Minnesota Supreme Court is vacating his seat before the end of his term. While I can believe that Justice Page would have preferred to fill out his term, allowing for an contested, competitive election to fill his seat, I prefer to believe that his peers of the judiciary and members of the bar and the political establishment persuaded him to vacate his seat prior to the end of his term, enabling a political appointment, and thus providing his replacement with the “incumbent” label on the ballot in the years into the future when his replacement first has to stand for election. This is how the judiciary has been “gaming” the system; vacate early, allowing an appointment, to avoid giving the voters the opportunity to make their own choice first.

    Now, back to the column at hand.

    Given the “color” of Brucato’s column, it is safe to assume that she supports those that would seek to overturn the bipartisan-derived provisions of the Minnesota Constitution that empowers the voters to select their judges, in favor of a system of political appointments.

    The “circus” and “mash-up” that Brucato refers to was due to the lack of leadership by Downey and the MNGOP Executive Committee that he chairs. Had he properly handled the situation, he would have orchestrated a re-convening of the convention to reconsider the endorsement that he and his judicial and bar cronies were adamantly opposed to. However, I expect that, given the grassroots support for addressing judicial issues, the delegates to a reconvened convention would not have overturned their prior endorsement, due to the fact that candidate MacDonald so strongly supports needed reform of judicial oversight, and supports the contested, competitive campaigns that are needed to provide information to the voters, so that they can make informed choices on the judicial ballot.

    Brucato’s labeling of those Republican judicial activists of the Party as feeling that the judiciary is “…stacked against them” is also pretty shallow, in that it ignores that there are deficiencies within the judiciary that should be corrected, or at least given the exposure to be publicly discussed and perhaps addressed. I believe that is the motivation that drives those activists, and not simply disgruntlement with the outcome of any personal issues with the judiciary. Who can deny that that there is always room for improvement of anything, and that it is very important that we collectively get our judiciary correct?

    Brucato’s report that “…a majority of the committee voted to withhold the information from the convention floor” is absolutely false. There was no such vote taken. The fact of the situation was that there was not sufficient strength for even a minority report to come out of the committee, so there was no minority report to present. The committee Chair was appointed by the MNGOP Chair, Downey, and had served as Downey’s campaign chair when Downey ran for the Minnesota House. During committee work, the Chair dissented from majority opinion, but he didn’t have enough support for a minority report. The committee Chair, being a delegate, could have addressed the Convention from the floor, but obviously chose not to do so, despite being advised by committee members that he had that option. Downey could have also addressed the Convention to express his concerns, but also obviously failed to do so. Yes, a failure of leadership, and now he is working to benefit from his failure and has conducted a survey of a minority subset of the grassroots of the Party, in the hope of deriving sentiment for the will of his judicial and bar cronies to disenfranchise the voters.

    Brucato also reports that U.S. Senate candidate McFadden, and gubernatorial candidate Johnson were “…forced to disavow MacDonald.” That’s an interesting piece of information that I haven’t seen reported as such yet. We could have more confidence in her reporting skills, if she would report who did the forcing, and how.

    Brucato goes on to report that MacDonald “…claimed to receive threatening phone calls from a party insider asking her to step aside.” The use of “claimed” infers Brucato’s bias. If she had contacted MacDonald, she could have used “reported.” (Actually, by my information and belief, one of the calls is well documented, and the documentation could very well be used in an attempt to get the ranting (including use of the f-word,) threatening, calling attorney disbarred, if MacDonald would chose to be so reactive. Here, again, we see a member of the bar ranting against someone that is simply hoping to achieve some needed judicial reform.)

    The joke in all of this is likely that David Lillehaug, MacDonald’s campaign opponent, who was a blatantly political appointee by Dayton, earning him the designation of “incumbent” on the ballot, was able to outpace MacDonald by a mere 6.68% of the vote. That result speaks very poorly of Lillehaug, exposing that his record, with its own controversies, has earned him much dislike on both sides of the aisle, and speaks very well for MacDonald, who’s record — including the controversial portions of it resulting from her challenges of the cloistered judiciary – has earned her much respect on both sides of the aisle. Indeed, MacDonald garnered more votes than any other state-wide Republican candidate of the election cycle.

    Brucato herself needs to moderate her reporting with some reform. Anyone reporting on the controversies that have encompassed MacDonald during her quest for bringing awareness to the deficiencies of the judiciary should as well fairly report on the good works of her personal record. Such decency is to be expected of something that is more than “yellow” reporting.

    Brucato should be more seriously considering the real judicial issues. I will be so presumptuous as to offer her some food for thought.

    The Minnesota judiciary, cloistered as it is, provides its self-oversight, from its perspective of self-interest, and is supported by the also self-interested Minnesota State Bar Association. There is no oversight from the outside looking in, such as a legislative oversight committee.

    During her career of her primary practice of family law, Michelle MacDonald has come to appreciate that there needs to be oversight of the judiciary beyond what it provides for itself. She is aware that there needs to be greater transparency, and greater public awareness of the deficiencies of the Minnesota judiciary, and she has been an advocate for all of that. Thus, the judiciary and the bar, including well-placed Republican judges and attorneys, with the support of their crony MNGOP Chair Downey, have worked to sabotage her efforts to bring about transparency and greater public awareness of judicial issues.

    Many offering comments here and elsewhere are either ignorant of the issues and what motivates MacDonald, or they are complicit saboteurs – likely knowingly, but perhaps unwittingly – of her efforts to influence reform.

    MacDonald has come to appreciate that the selection of judges must remain in the hands of the voters, and not in the hands of the cloister with its undue influence. She also knows that the designation of incumbency on the judicial ballot, as a bit of information, is an unearned advantage in the context of judicial qualifications and temperament. Accordingly, the cloister loathes her for resisting its efforts to disenfranchise the voter, depriving the voters of robust campaigns that can bring transparency to the cloister and to the judicial temperament of its candidates.

    MacDonald has recently disclosed that she has filed an application to fill the Supreme Court seat being vacated by Justice Page. Yes, it is indeed a very long shot that Dayton would appoint MacDonald to the Court, but I admire and respect her fortitude in filing an application. (While I have respected Justice Page’s temperament on the Court, it can be argued that his qualifications at the time of his appointment did not exceed those qualifications that MacDonald presently holds.) Dayton could do Minnesota well by giving us a probing voice on the Court, a move that would be bipartisan and bring some balance to his appointment of Lillehaug.

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 04/17/2015 - 09:05 pm.


      I feel the need to stand up for Cindy Brucato, who’s reporting here (and generally) is very solid. She comes from a Republican background and writes about Republicans, and the fact that she can still be even-handed certainly doesn’t make her work biased toward liberals.

      It wasn’t a particular person or people that “forced” Republican candidates to distance themselves from McDonald. Rather it was the political fallout from being affiliated with someone who was so unfit and unqualified for public office. They were embarrassed to have anything to do with someone like McDonald.

      Dayton would be hard-pressed to find a less qualified candidate for the court. Fortunately, politicians on both sides of the aisle are well aware she has no business serving on the bench. I’m frankly surprised she is still allowed to practice law in Minnesota.

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