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For justices, election day another walk in park

Patrick Thornton//November 9, 2012//

For justices, election day another walk in park

Patrick Thornton//November 9, 2012//

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Voters cast their ballots Nov. 6 at the East Recreation Center in Winona, Minn. Statewide, some 30 percent of voters did not cast votes in Supreme Court elections. (AP Photo / Winona Daily News: Rory O’Driscoll)

Job remains among most secure around

There may come a day when an incumbent Minnesota Supreme Court justice is unseated in an election, but don’t expect it any time soon.

Once again, incumbents cruised to easy wins last week, and all of the races stayed in the usual 60-to-40 percent split of the vote for incumbents.

“Unless something changes, the only reason we would see an incumbent defeated is if there is widespread belief that someone isn’t doing their job. We just haven’t had that problem in Minnesota,” said Peter Knapp, a Minnesota Supreme Court observer and professor at the William Mitchell College of Law.

Chief Justice Lorie Gildea was challenged by International Falls attorney Dan Griffith. She won 60 percent to 40 percent. G. Barry Anderson was challenged by Dean Barkley, a Bloomington lawyer and the chairman of Jesse Ventura’s gubernatorial campaign. Anderson won 59 percent to 41 percent. David Stras won his first bid for re-election 56 percent to 44 percent over Tim Tingelstad, a magistrate judge in the  District.

Tingelstad and Griffith have run for statewide judicial office before. Barkley’s name recognition associated with the Ventura campaign and his brief stint as a U.S. senator a decade ago prompted some to predict he could make the race more interesting. But the challengers never really took off.

The candidates did not debate or attend candidate forums together. Tingelstad and Griffith both live in northern Minnesota and made few appearances in the metro area and, unlike in previous elections, none of the candidates sought or were given party endorsement.

All three incumbents paid for radio advertising time, and Barkley released an ad on YouTube that had been viewed 40,000 times as of Nov. 7. Almost all the candidates were on Twitter, and all had campaign websites. But the incumbents maintained  fundraising leads, tapping the biggest Twin Cities law firms and several prominent lawyers for donations.

Through the end of October, Gildea raised $30,755 for her campaign, Anderson raised $102,574 and Stras raised $53,826. Among the challengers, Tingelstad raised $4,683, Barkley $5,524 and Griffith $9,836.95.

“I felt like this was a particularly quiet year for judicial races,” said Karen Cole, a longtime judicial election observer and St. Paul attorney. “The incumbents campaigned a little bit more than I thought they would, but it was hard to get these races on the radar.”

She said the fundraising totals for 2012 were comparable or a bit lower than in past Supreme Court elections.

That is a good thing, said Knapp. In some neighboring states, incumbent justices must now raise a million dollars to run for re-election. The influence of money and politics into judicial elections is to be feared, he said. Once candidates need to start raising significant money they become susceptible to special interests.

“I don’t think that does anyone any good, especially our justice system,” Knapp said. “We have been lucky to not fall into the sinkhole of bitterly political elections that cost way too much money.”

A decade ago, challengers usually scored voting percentages in the “high 30s,” Cole said. The races have tightened some, but not dramatically.

The 2012 election also provided framework to the question of whether a party endorsement is significant in Supreme Court Races. In 2010, Tinglestad, Griffith and Greg Wersal ran against the three incumbent justices. All three were endorsed by the  and listed as such on the party’s website and campaign materials.

Wersal lost to Helen Meyer by 16 percentage points. Tingelstad lost to Page by 26 percentage points. Griffith ran against Judge Larry Stauber on the Court of Appeals; he lost by only 4 percentage points.

Cole said it is hard to tell if endorsements matter in the elections. Griffith did better with the endorsement in 2010, but Tingelstad did worse.

Gildea, who was appointed to the court in 2006 and made chief justice in 2010, said she enjoyed the campaign and that it was energizing to talk to people.

“I love my job and I love to meet people. I am humbled by the showing of support that I received and am happy to have the opportunity to continue for another six years,” she said.

Stras was appointed to the court in 2010. He was very active on Twitter and Facebook during the campaign and lined up an impressive list of endorsements and supporters, including many elected officials and well-known attorneys.

He said he looked forward to the next term and also made a point to congratulate Tingelstad on running a strong and positive race.

Anderson was appointed to the court in 2004 and re-elected in 2006. He said his campaign was a blend of new tactics, a commitment to social media, and old yard signs, media interviews and talking to voters face to face.

“We knew that our opponent was a serious candidate with substantial partisan campaign experience, and [we] planned accordingly,” he said. “I am grateful to my committee for their hard work and to the voters who expressed confidence in me. It was gratifying and more than a little humbling.”

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