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Constitutional amendment on judges gets lots of support — but not the governor’s

Two former Republican governors, Al Quie and Arne Carlson, firmly endorse changing the system Minnesotans use to select and elect its judges, a move designed to keep judicial elections from degenerating into mega-buck, mudslinging affairs. So does the current head of the state’s court system, Chief Justice Russell Anderson. So does a former Minnesota chief justice, A.M. Sandy Keith.

And so do those on a long list of prominent political and opinion leaders in the state. And not that it matters, so do I.

But so far, Gov. Tim Pawlenty does not. A proposed constitutional amendment that would have gone before voters this November is dead for this session. And Pawlenty is content to let it rest in peace.

“We are proud of Minnesota’s high quality judiciary,” Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said in response to a MinnPost email asking about the governor’s position. “The governor is not certain that our system of judicial selection and election needs changing. There’s been no evidence yet suggesting that our system has been overly politicized. Most judges [in Minnesota] run for reelection without major challenges and the vast majority are reelected.”

Maybe no evidence in Minnesota, but there is in other states where special interests have poured millions of dollars into judicial races in attempts to buy a robe, to get a judge elected who has indicated a preference for certain views. Quie, who started a merit selection process when he became governor in 1979, sees a judicial train wreck in the future. He headed a citizens’ commission that recommended changes in the existing judicial selection/election system.

In short, all judges would be appointed their first term by the governor who would pick from a list prepared by a special panel of lawyers and non-lawyers. During their terms, they would be screened by a citizen-lawyer committee which could recommend to voters the retention of the judges. Those judges would not have opponents. Voters would give a thumbs up or down on retention.

Some conservatives resisting change
Some influential conservatives in the Republican Party don’t want any change. Indeed, the state party has endorsed judicial candidates in the past and is forming judicial committees in its 10 judicial districts to get behind preferred candidates. Party activists aren’t the only ones, to be sure. The district judges association hasn’t signed off on it, and neither has some of organized labor.

Quie says he understands Pawlenty’s reluctance. “You don’t want to incur the wrath of those in your party who are opposed to it,” he said. “So you say, ‘I’m not going to fight that one right now.'” Pawlenty will need the party faithful if he decides to seek a third term. And he probably doesn’t want to rock any Republican boats right now when he has a shot of being named John McCain’s running mate on the national ticket.

“I’ve talked to him many times about the [Quie] commission’s recommendations, and we agreed that he’d say he’s reviewing it and hasn’t made a decision yet,” said Quie. “It doesn’t bother me too much because he can’t veto a constitutional amendment anyway.”

Proposed amendments to the state Constitution, once approved by the House and Senate, go directly to the voters.

Dodged the question
Quie said he needs time to talk to legislators who do not attach a high priority to the amendment this year. He can persuade them, he said. And he expects Chief Justice Anderson, who announced his intentions to step down in June, to be a vocal advocate. Anderson went public with his support earlier this week in Lori Sturdevant’s column in the Star Tribune. “If big spending on judicial races doesn’t come to Minnesota in this election cycle, it will soon,” the chief told Sturdevant.

Earlier this week, too, Pawlenty named Eric Magnuson to replace Anderson. Magnuson, whom Pawlenty called the most respected appellate lawyer in the state, possibly the nation, dodged a question on the proposed amendment. The next head of the state’s judicial system said he didn’t have a complete grasp of the issue

Well, maybe Quie should pay him a visit. Or he could read the report of The Civic Caucus, a relatively new public affairs organization that noodles over public policy, interviews leaders and issues position papers and recommendations. The Civic Caucus seconded the Quie commission recommendations. Guys like former Republican U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger agreed with the caucus. So did some other former Republican office holders: Bill Frenzel, George Pillsbury, Ed Oliver, Wayne Popham and Sheila Kiscaden. So did former Republican chair Chuck Slocum. And in the interest of disclosure, so did I.

“I understand the other people [who are reluctant to support the proposed amendment],” said Quie. “You have to be patient. They’ll come around. And Tim will, too,” he said of the governor.

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