March 4, 2010
Good afternoon, Chair Pelowski, committee members and guests:
My name is Keesha Gaskins. I am the Executive Director for the League of
Women Voters of Minnesota (LWVMN). We are proud to celebrate our 90th year
of our work as non-partisan advocates and educators for Minnesotans. The League
had its own judicial study committee and consistent representation on the Quie Commission.
We are very concerned about Minnesota becoming a playground for special interest
in multi-million dollar judicial elections that have become the norm in states like
Wisconsin, Texas and Ohio. Politicizing the judiciary runs counter to the
principles of the League of Women Voters. We agree with former US Supreme
Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor as she urged legislators and advocates not to
wait to see if Minnesota became another Wisconsin. She said, we ought to find
“a more thoughtful, better way” than our current contested election system.
House file 224 is that way.
This proposed legislation would begin the change to our Constitution in order
to establish retention elections and an evaluation commission. This system,
along with merit selection (which exists already for district court judges), is
the best way to keep partisan politics and big money out of our judicial elections.
It is our best hope for maintaining the high quality judiciary for which Minnesota
has been known.
The situation is serious. Justice at Stake has called out "the ruin that
has marked the last decade of judicial elections in the United States." We are aware
of the explosion of money in contested judicial elections across the country, with
millions of dollars spent on single races. We know about the television ads
(12,000 in Wisconsin last year, with 90% of the costs paid for by special interest
groups). We know about the use of sound bites which candidates for judicial
office throw at each other in what Wisconsin Public Radio has called "boxing matches."
We are familiar with this sad business that distorts and demeans the system of justice.
Let us not make it a familiar story in Minnesota. We don't have to.
Trust in the judiciary once lost, will not easily be regained. To wait
until Minnesota’s judges are part of the kind of political rancor and name-calling
we have seen take hold in other states is not responsible. Regaining lost
trust is much like trying to get ketchup back in the bottle. While not impossible,
it is an great effort resulting in tainted ketchup tainted and ruined food.
After the monumental “White” decisions by the United States Supreme Court and
the Eighth Circuit court, the League of Women Voters of Minnesota took a good hard
look at our system of selecting judges in Minnesota. The committee held meetings,
carried out research, and interviewed a former governor and experts from the Minnesota
Supreme Court, the Minnesota Court of Appeals, the Republican and DFL parties, the
Minnesota State Bar Association, Minnesota District courts, the Legislature and
the Minnesota Commission on Judicial Selection. Thirty-four local LWV chapters
across the state discussed the issues and held many public forums. Engaging
and gathering input and feedback from urban rural and suburban communities across
In the end 99% of our members agreed that a system with merit selection, retention
elections, and an evaluation commission was by far the best. This extraordinary
consensus did not emerge without a lot of questions, the most frequent having to
do with the performance evaluation commission. Who would be on it? Who
would name commission members? How would the commission make decisions?
Where was the public benefit? Everyone recognized the enormous power of this
commission and also recognized that this commission must be viewed by the public
as legitimate or it would not be acceptable.
The League of Women Voters would never support a measure that eliminates voter
participation in the electoral process. Voters will make the final decision
as to whether a judge should be retained in office. When they go to the polls
voters will be armed with good information provided by the performance evaluation
No longer will voters look at the judicial ballot and wonder who the candidates
are and either vote randomly, or choose based on the candidate's last name, or not
vote at all. In our current system, over 40% of voters simply do not vote
for judges. Armed with good information people will vote: this will be a service
both to the voters and to the judiciary.
As Justice Alan Page pointed out, in a retention election there is a "dramatic
disincentive" for any group trying to defeat a judge, since that group would have
no control over who would replace the defeated judge. The amount of money
raised in retention election states pales in comparison to that raised in contested
election states. In 2006 in the states which have retention elections, only
3 of the 38 state Supreme Court justices up for retention raised any money at all.
In that same year in contested election states over $155 million was raised.
Ultimately retention elections allows judges to act impartially and responsibly
with minimal fear of their decisions being used in a political campaign against
them. Retention elections allow our public to know that the referees of the
justice system do not have a personal interest in the outcome of the game.
We must be able to trust our judges. We are a democratic republic governed
by the rule of law – relying on the separation of powers to ensure fair and just
governance. When any of us enters a courtroom we must believe that we can
trust the system: trust that the judge will know the law, that she will treat everyone
with respect, listen to all sides, and reach decisions based on the law. Plaintiffs,
defendants, prosecutors, guardian ad litems, should not have to worry about what
party the judge belongs to, or about the judge's campaign promises. The system
should promote confidence, because we know that even the perception of bias or injustice
is terribly destructive to democracy.
The League of Women Voters urges the committee to pass House File 224: we believe
that the threats to Minnesota's impartial judiciary are so great as to warrant changing
our Constitution. And as Justice O'Connor has said, "Judicial independence
does not just happen all by itself. It is tremendously hard to create, and
easier than most people imagine to destroy." (National Voter, February 2008)
Copies of the LWVMN judicial committee report are available at the LWVMN office,
550 Rice Street, St. Paul, and may be found online at www.lwvmn.org (click on “Report
on Judicial Selection in Minnesota" under Quick Links). The report includes
summaries of interviews.
Other Public Statements: