Retired Duluth judge looks back at politics on the bench at LWV ‘Equali-Tea’ celebrationElection season may be months away, but members of the League of Women Voters in Duluth are not taking a break from their ongoing discussion of political issues.
By: Tom Olsen, Duluth Budgeteer News
Election season may be months away, but members of the League of Women Voters in Duluth are not taking a break from their ongoing discussion of political issues.
The nonpartisan political organization is hosting its fifth annual “Equali-Tea” celebration and fundraiser later this month. This year’s theme is impartial judiciary, and will feature remarks from retired Duluth attorney and judge Carol Person.
“This is an annual event for the League of Women Voters in Duluth, something we’ve been doing for several years to celebrate suffrage,” said event organizer Nancy Bratrud. “We chose tea because this is way that original founders got together to discuss the need for women to vote. And it’s something they fought for many years.”
The event not only serves as a celebration of voting rights and a political discussion, but also as a fundraiser for the organization. Tickets are sold for $25 apiece, which helps fund operating expenses for the League of Women voters.
This year’s theme of impartial judiciary was selected to coincide with the League of Women Voters’ support for an amendment to the Minnesota constitution that would institute a judicial evaluation process.
Person, who served as a judge for Minnesota’s Sixth Judicial District from 1993 to 2004, will speak about the importance of judicial impartiality. Minnesota’s Sixth Judicial District serves the Arrowhead Region in Carlton, Cook, Lake and St. Louis Counties.
“The league does a wonderful job of trying to gather facts and form nonpartisan opinions,” she said. “I support the league continuing to investigate the issue and investigate what changes should be made. I don’t intend to endorse any particular reform, but just talk about how important it is.”
The issue of judicial impartiality has been raised following a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a clause in Minnesota’s
judicial code that barred judicial candidates from discussing stances on political and legal issues that could be brought before them in the courtroom. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that the clause violated the First Amendment.
Since that time, judges have been able to announce party affiliation, seek and accept endorsements and directly ask for campaign contributions. Bratrud said that puts Minnesota at risk of having judicial elections turn into political races.
“All we need to do is look to Wisconsin to see how this looks,” she
said. “There we’re seeing millions of dollars pumped into campaigns every time a judgeship comes up.”
Person said she believes Minnesota has one of the stronger judicial selection processes in the country, but the Supreme Court ruling is a slippery slope.
“There may be candidates who want to be judges who come along and say, ‘I will exercise the rights that the Supreme Court says I have. I don’t care if that makes the process more partial,’” she said. “Thankfully, the judges that I have known take their oath seriously. Their oath is to follow the law, no matter their personal views or opinions or life experiences. You have to follow the law and apply the law.”
Melanie Ford, a Duluth attorney and former St. Louis County Attorney, is involved with organizing the League of Women Voters event. She said the issue is something she’s interested in because as an attorney, she would feel uncomfortable with judges who have taken political stances and openly accepted contributions.
“If an insurance company wasn’t paying up to a client of mine and I know the insurance company has made contributions to the judge, it would make me wonder how impartial that judge really is,” she said. “This is something we don’t really want to have happen in Minnesota.
Under the amendment proposed by the League of Women Voters, each judge would be subject to an evaluation by a large committee of citizens at the end of his or her term. The evaluation would be distributed to the public, and voters would be asked whether or not to retain the judge. If voters removed the judge from office, the governor would appoint a new judge.
Currently, the Minnesota Commission on Judicial Selection recommends district court judicial candidates to the governor, although he is not obligated
to select from that list. The amendment would change that, requiring the
governor to choose one of three recommendations.
The League of Women Voters Minnesota branch has made it a priority to address judicial partisanship since the 2002 Supreme Court decision.
“Courts are the basis of democracy,” said Bratrud, who has worked on the statewide reform effort. “Lawmaking and law enforcement are one thing, but interpretation is where rubber hits road. If judges are even thought to be impractical, this can ruin whole process.”
While the issue is an important one for league members, Bratrud said the upcoming tea party will be more celebratory than political.
It will be a 1920s- or ‘30s-style party, she said, not only because women achieved the right to vote during that time, but also because many of the members are hooked on the popular British television program “Downton Abbey,” which is also set in the early 20th century. Hats and other fashions from the period will be available for rent and sale at the event.