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A legal conundrum: What to do when all the candidates pull out of a judge’s race?

Even a couple of years ago, judicial elections were about as interesting as the boilerplate in a legal brief. Most judges are appointed by the governor and, barring major controversy, run unopposed until they chose to retire.

Not this year. Only three state Supreme Court justices are running unopposed and vacant seats — including one being vacated by a judge who is protesting Pawlenty’s approach to appointments — are drawing multiple challengers.

But the most interesting one yet developed at the last minute for a Washington County judicial seat through a series of events that has resulted in there being no candidate at all. The Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office today announced it would re-open the filing period for that race, but only for one week.

Elections officials aren’t sure whether this is the first time a candidate’s withdrawal has necessitated reopening a filing period, but say they know of no other instances.

The contest became the topic of controversy in the legal blogosphere earlier this week when the popular site Above the Law laid out a chronology that started Tuesday, the deadline for candidates to file for judicial races.

That morning, Stillwater Judge Thomas G. Armstrong was running unopposed, something that’s not unusual in lower-level judicial races where unseating incumbents is very, very difficult. However, shortly before the 5 p.m. filing deadline, Armstrong’s law clerk, Dawn Hennessey, filed to run against her boss.

Thomas G. Armstrong
Thomas G. Armstrong

The following day, Armstrong, who was first elected in 1980, withdrew from the race and sent a letter to Gov. Tim Pawlenty announcing his retirement at the end of his term — a move that blocks the governor from appointing a replacement.

That left Hennessey the only candidate in the election — and the subject of controversy. She withdrew Thursday — the last day to do so — after the story hit the Internet. Hennessey told the Pioneer Press that she withdrew because she feared some people would suspect “collusion.”

In an email she wrote to the newspaper, she said: “I don’t want people to think this was tainted or dishonest or any collusion occurred. If people believe this, then my honest intentions really don’t matter …”

That turn of events left the race with no candidate and forced Washington County elections officials and the Secretary of State’s Office to scramble to figure out what to do. After two meetings and consultations with legal experts, they concluded that the two withdrawals created a “vacancy in nomination” and that the state did have the authority to reopen the filing period.

Interested parties had better get cracking, however.

According to the parameters laid out by Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, prospective candidates have seven days to collect the signatures of 500 voters in the state’s 10th Judicial District, which includes Anoka, Chisago, Isanti, Kanabec, Pine, Sherburne, Washington and Wright counties and submit them to elections officials.

Candidates must reside in the judicial district at least 30 days before the general election. Once their filing documents are verified, qualified candidates will be placed directly on the November general election ballot, not the state primary ballot.

If no valid petitions are filed, the seat will remain on the general election ballot without any candidates’ names listed. Voters would then have an opportunity to elect a write-in candidate.

Because judicial races tend to attract candidates with lots of eccentricities but little courtroom experience, the news set phones ringing in courthouses throughout the metro area as lawyers plotted to draft colleagues. Candidates with the right bona fides — and the ability to gather hundreds of voters’ signatures in days — have yet to surface.

Beth Hawkins writes about criminal justice, schools and other topics.

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