One peculiarity of the Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision to remove Rep. Kerry Gauthier’s name from next month’s general election ballot was that Justice David Stras opted not to participate in the case.
The highly plausible word on the street is that Straus had a conflict because one of his election campaign co-chairs was active in making the case to remove Gauthier on behalf of the DFL Party. The party successfully sought to get Gauthier, DFL-Duluth, off the ballot after police investigated him for having a sexual encounter with a 17-year-old male at a Duluth area rest stop. Charlie Nauen, a DFLer and partner at Minneapolis-based law firm Lockridge Grindal Nauen, represented the DFL. Nauen is also a co-chairman of Stras’s reelection campaign.
Stras’ office referred a call seeking comment to the Supreme Court commissioner’s office. The person who answered the phone in the commissioner’s office explained that justices aren’t required to provide an explanation for why they don’t participate in a case. Nauen said he’s unaware of any reason that Stras didn’t take part in the case.
Hamline University professor David Schultz said the campaign connection is grounds for Stras to recuse himself from the case.
“I think it’s a straight-out point of appearance of conflict of interest, even though there probably is no financial conflict of interest whatsoever,” Schultz said. “The general judicial cannons are going to say, take any action that is appropriate to mitigate conflict of interest. And you could make the argument here that it is.”
Stras, who was appointed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, is seeking election to the non-partisan high court for the first time. He’s being challenged by Tim Tingelstad and Allan Nelson.
Judging from political biographies, it would appear that Nauen and Stras come from different political worlds, with the former representing the DFL Party and the latter an appointee of the Republican Pawlenty with a background in the arch-conservative Federalist Society. Stras, however, appears to enjoy bipartisan support. His campaign website lists supporters including former DFL Party Chair Brian Melendez and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi.
Besides Nauen, Stras has three other co-chairs: Chuck Weber of Faegre Baker Daniels, Ron Schutz of Robbins, Kaplan and Robin Wolpert of 3M. Schutz was Pawlenty’s chairman of the Commission on Judicial Selection.
In staying out of the case, Stras did avoid getting criticism from his own party. That wasn’t the case for Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea, who was also appointed by Pawlenty. After the order signed by Gildea was issued, Republican Party Chairman Pat Shortridge issued a press release saying the decision was “yet another case of judicial overreach and making things up out of thin air where no authority exists in statute.”