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As the filing period to run for judicial office sets to close, competitive races continue to be the exception. But there are some.

Few contested races for seats on the bench

As the filing period to run for judicial office sets to close, competitive races continue to be the exception.

Those exceptions include:

• Dean Barkley, the former U.S. senator, founder of the Minnesota Reform Party and the chairman of Jesse Ventura’s successful run for governor in 1998, registered to challenge G. Barry Anderson on the Minnesota Supreme Court.

• In Hennepin County Judge Patricia Kerr Karasov is retiring. Lois Conroy, Steven Antolak and Marc Berris have all filed to run for that spot. Judge Deborah Hedlund is also retiring, and so far Elizabeth Cutter, a prosecutor at the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, is the only candidate registered to run for that spot.

• In the 9th District, in the far northwest corner of the state, Judge John G. Melbye is being challenged by Diana Sweeney, a state public defender in the district. Sweeney was a finalist for a judicial appointment in 2009. In 2006 Melbye defeated incumbent Terrence Holter. That race was made more interesting by the fact that Melbye was once Holter’s law clerk before quitting to run against Holter.

• In the 1st District Shakopee solo attorney Brian Gravely is challenging incumbent Kathryn Messerich.

About 75 District Court judge vacancies are on the ballot; in all but a few the incumbent judge is registered to run unopposed.

In addition to Anderson, David Stras and Lorie Gildea are up for re-election on the Supreme Court. Incumbents Renee Worke and Jill Flaskamp Halbrooks are also running unopposed on the Court of Appeals.

Jump-starting competition in judicial races was one of the Republican Party’s themes last legislative session. It failed.

Republican legislators introduced bills to remove the incumbency designation from the judicial ballot. Judge is the only elected office in the state where the word “incumbent” appears next to the name of the officeholder. This moniker has long been viewed by some as an impediment for challengers and a built-in advantage for sitting judges.

A second bill would remove the mandatory retirement age. As it stands now a District Court judge must retire at the end of the month he or she turns 70. This provision too often results in a judge retiring midterm and the governor appointing a successor to finish the term, critics say. When it comes time for the successor to run for re-election, that judge can use the “incumbent” designation on the ballot.

A third would change who could vote for judges. Under the current system all voters in the district are eligible to vote for a judge. A bill introduced last year allowed only residents of the county the judge presides in to vote in the election.

All three bills stalled.

Bonn Clayton, the chairman of the judicial election committee for the state Republican Party, said he isn’t surprised by the lack of competition among judicial elections.

“The way the system is set up it’s a tall order to run against a sitting judge,” he said. “A democracy deserves to have healthy, competitive elections. Issues like how a judge handles a divorce case or runs his courtroom, those deserve to be discussed in public. That doesn’t happen when there aren’t contested races and there is no accountability to the voters.”

His group will endorse judicial candidates this year and start as soon as the filing period closes, he said.

The lack of competition on the judicial ballot, especially on the District Court level, is not unique to Minnesota, said Raleigh Levine, a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. There are four ways for a judge to take the bench in the nation: partisan, contested elections; nonpartisan contested elections (like Minnesota); uncontested retention elections; and renewable appointments like the federal system.

She said most states either elect judges like Minnesota or have uncontested retention elections.

Many people thought the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, which allowed candidates for judicial office to seek party endorsement and discuss issues that might come before them as judges, would encourage more judicial challengers, but that hasn’t been the case yet, Levine said.

“The judicial elections are very low information races and tend to be subject to voter fatigue,” Levine said. “They are way down on the ballot and come with such little information on the candidates that voters will take shortcuts and vote for the status quo, or not vote at all, and that tends to dissuade challengers.”

And an attorney who challenges a judge runs the risk of losing and then having to appear in front of that judge later on.

Incumbent judges do get challenged, and some lose. In 2010 Larry Clark unseated incumbent Tim Blakely in the 1st District for a seat in Red Wing. But he had help. In 2009 the state Supreme Court suspended Blakely for six months after it was discovered he received a $60,000 discount on his divorce in exchange for ordering people in his courtroom to hire the firm that represented him.

One reason that so few incumbents are challenged is because Minnesota has good judges, said St. Paul attorney Ann O’Reilly, the chairwoman of the Judicial Election Campaign Conduct Committee for the Minnesota State Bar Association. To be appointed to the bench candidates are first thoroughly vetted and screened by the Judicial Selection Committee.

“When someone makes it through that process they have proven to be well qualified for the position,” O’Reilly said. “Judges have a very public record that is scrutinized on a daily basis by their peers and other attorneys. Challenging someone with a proven track record is hard to do, just as it would be with any office. But when that record doesn’t stack up, you will see challengers who run.”

Her committee asks candidates for judicial office to sign a pledge that asks them to not identify with a political party or make public comments about cases or controversies likely to come before the court among other provisions. O’Reilly said all but a handful of candidates sign the pledge.

“The role of a judge isn’t like the executive or legislative branch,” she said. “The position should be protected from the outside influences that could make it more political. Judges have an important duty, and that is best done in an independent way. The election process isn’t perfect, but we try to preserve the integrity of the process.”

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