Who judges our judges? The founders based our government on interlocking institutions that serve as checks and balances on each other. Shared governance from the executive, legislative and judicial leaders should ensure a balance of power driven by voters making a choice, the Founders reasoned.
Judges are a special case, however. If you voted in the recent election, an election worker probably reminded you to check the back of your ballot. If you flipped the ballot over, you saw 17 judicial races with all the candidates unopposed. Those races were for Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and District Court seats.
Why bother coloring in all those ovals? Those judges just need a few votes from friends and family to keep their gavels and robes.
Many voters in Stearns Count didn’t bother going through the motions this election. While more than 65,000 votes were cast for all candidates running for governor, each judicial race attracted about 40,000 votes in Stearns County.
It’s time to consider how we select judges. For Minnesota’s 296 district court judges, vacancies between general elections are filled by appointment by the governor, typically from a list recommended by the Commission on Judicial Selection. The governor fills Supreme Court and Court of Appeals vacancies between general elections.
All judges serve six-year terms without party affiliation. Sitting judges are rarely challenged. Voters almost never have a choice.
Voters can track and evaluate other elected officials’ records based on where they stand on issues and how they vote on legislation.
How do you evaluate the 30 judges in the Seventh Judicial District, which includes Stearns and Benton counties? How many people attend trials or follow how judges’ motions, cases or appeals affect their communities?
The Supreme Court resolves challenges that concern citizens’ constitutional rights. Those issues attract wider attention and we can read how judges rule. Those seats should stay on the ballot, but we need a better method for electing Court of Appeals and District Court judges.
The Commission on Judicial Selection is comprised of nine at-large members and four district members from each of the 10 Judicial Districts. The commission’s members are appointed by the governor and Minnesota Supreme Court. That’s a good system for screening and selecting qualified candidates. But we should consider a change for judicial elections. One option is a retention election where judges do not have opponents. Instead, voters decide whether or not to retain a judge in office. If a judge receives a simple majority of “yes” votes, the judge may serve another term. Some 20 states use this method. Voters would still have a voice…a check… because of the governor’s role as well as the retention vote.
On the front of the ballot, Stearns County voters also found three county officials running without opposition – the sheriff, county attorney and auditor-treasurer. Competitive elections happen more often for those offices. For example, Sheriff Steve Soyka was one of four candidates who filed for sheriff in 2018.
Compared with judges, the performance of those three officials is much more visible to voters. The sheriff, for example, leads a $20 million department of more than 200 people that patrol, operates the jail and 911 communications and serves civil process. Even though this time around those officials faced no opposition, the jobs should stay on the ballot.
Before the 2024 election, legislators should consider how to provide checks on judges without presenting voters a page of no choices.