When GOP-endorsed Supreme Court candidate Michelle MacDonald addressed the judicial election committee at the state Republican convention in May, many of the 15 committee members in the room saw themselves in her.
MacDonald told a tale of overzealous sheriff’s deputies, a callous judge, poor treatment at a county jail and trumped-up charges of driving while impaired and resisting arrest. Her experience, which she says exposes many of the problems with the state judicial system, rang true to many of the committee members. Many of them, some members later wrote in an email, had experienced “this unconstitutional abuse of power by Minnesota courts, law enforcement, and court officers” so they were “not skeptical” of MacDonald’s story.
The committee of about 20 is composed of party activists appointed by the GOP chair of each individual judicial district. The party’s judicial chairs have long advocated for judicial elections. Most of the members of the committee did not respond to requests to discuss the committee and MacDonald’s candidacy, but, with one exception, those who did were resolute in their belief that they made the right choice.
“She’s not guilty. That’s our conclusion,” said Bonn Clayton. “Everyone on the committee with just a few exceptions was convinced that she’s not guilty.”
MacDonald, who is challenging Justice David Lillehaug for his Supreme Court seat, is facing charges of fourth-degree DWI, refusal to take a breath test, and resisting arrest in connection with a traffic stop made earlier this year. She also detailed circumstances surrounding charges of contempt of court and obstructing legal process that were dismissed earlier this year in Dakota County.
MacDonald told the committee that she was tortured in jail and kept in a solitary confinement cell, where the temperature was kept low, the lights were kept bright, and a small curtain was left open so deputies could observe her using the toilet. Court bailiffs testified in court that MacDonald was only detained after she was told she would receive a misdemeanor citation for taking photos during a break in court and she refused to tell them her name, date of birth and address. MacDonald denies that account.
Many of the committee members have no trouble believing MacDonald’s story. Clayton said he has not experienced unfair treatment by law enforcement or judges, but he has seen it happen to friends of his.
“I think it’s not widespread, but it happens often enough and it’s not dealt with by whatever authorities that should be handling it,” Clayton said. “There needs to be more oversight and more accountability and more supervision.”
The one committee member who heard MacDonald speak about her candidacy and her legal troubles who did not vote to endorse her was committee chairman Doug Seaton. Seaton and two others, who were not in attendance, voted against endorsing MacDonald, but they were a small minority compared to the 17, both present and absent, who voted for her. Clayton, Ayrlahn Johnson, and Ron Niemala all pointed out that Seaton and the other two no-voters are attorneys. That, they said, is telling.
“An attorney is trained to understand that what a judge says is sacrosanct. Nothing is sacrosanct, except the word of God. Judges are no different,” Niemala said. “They are not above the law at all.”
The fact that attorneys voted against endorsing MacDonald can be interpreted another way, said Seaton. When those who work in the system and have the greatest understanding of it did not support MacDonald, that could have been a red flag to other committee members.
“I think it’s somewhat telling that all the lawyers thought that this is not a recommendation that should be made by the committee,” Seaton said.
Instead, some committee members viewed that as confirmation that they made the right choice.
MacDonald is a strong candidate for many reasons, said Johnson, but one of them is that she herself has experienced legal troubles. While Johnson did not emphasize his personal issues — he wants to focus on MacDonald — he did say that he was charged with obstructing the legal process when he approached the scene of a single-car accident.
“They just got in my face immediately, grabbed me, threw me on the ground, tased me twice, took me to jail and the whole bit,” Johnson said.
The charges were dropped, but that’s not the point, Johnson said.
“The problem is I have to hire an attorney and spend a bunch of money and go to court five times to what, clear my name?” Johnson said. “That’s really abusive.”
Johnson lauded MacDonald’s “gumption” and “wherewithal” to fight the charges brought against her, as well as pursue more information regarding the court incident that ended with her spending a night in jail. MacDonald is seeking video recordings that she said will confirm her account of her treatment.
Recent news reports have indicated that party leaders might want to back away from MacDonald as a candidate. Efforts to speak with State Republican Party chair Keith Downey on the subject were not successful. But MacDonald said that is a distraction created by the media, and she doesn’t believe those reports are true. Even if it is true, Clayton said, it won’t hurt MacDonald.
“At the convention she was endorsed unanimously, and that means something,” Clayton said. “These people are not only in favor of Michelle, but, more importantly, they are in favor of judicial endorsements and judicial elections.”
Regardless, MacDonald said she won’t let that deter from her plans to expose problems with the judiciary.
The charges pending against MacDonald are scheduled for trial on Sept. 15, MacDonald said. She plans to invite the public and the media to witness the trial and hopes that cameras will be allowed in the courtroom to record it.
“That’s a way of demonstrating about getting cameras in the courtroom, which is our right,” MacDonald said.
That is just one important issue MacDonald’s candidacy can highlight, Johnson said. He also wants to bring attention to the fact that the Supreme Court does not just consider cases, it makes the rules and manages the judicial branch. “Status quo” has led to expensive court proceedings that freeze out the middle class, Johnson said. He also argued that courts interpreting legislative intent has allowed them to alter laws, essentially legislating from the bench.
“I think there needs to be major reform,” Johnson said.
Many of the committee members hope that, if MacDonald is elected, it will be a significant step toward switching from a system of judicial appointments and retention elections to elections only. The current system, said Niemala, has allowed the judiciary too much power and has left it unaccountable to the people. Until the people have greater power, the judiciary will not achieve greater transparency and will not erode the outsized power he believes judges have been given. For example, people should be able to sue judges for their actions in court, Niemala said
“We cannot give up our right to vote for any reason at all in any election, because we become that much less of a free society,” said Niemala.
Elizabeth Ahlin is a staff writer for Capitol Report’s sister publication Minnesota Lawyer.