In the judicial elections last week, Justices David Lillehaug and Wilhelmina Wright were re-elected to the Minnesota Supreme Court and three new judges were victorious in Hennepin County, along with one incumbent.
Lillehaug received 777,518 votes on his way to defeating challenger Michelle MacDonald, and Wright received 837,327 votes in her victory over challenger John Hancock.
Lillehaug said the race was a lesson in the danger of political parties becoming involved in what should be nonpartisan judicial races. He said he did not regret his decision to not seek endorsement and to campaign honorably.
Lillehaug’s race drew plenty of attention but it was mostly centered on MacDonald’s campaign. She sought and won the Republican Party’s endorsement, but was barred from campaigning at the GOP’s Minnesota State Fair booth after it came to light that she had been arrested on suspicion of drunken driving. She then filed a complaint against the party and several GOP leaders with the State Office of Administrative Hearings that was dismissed. Her traffic case went to trial in September and she was convicted of obstructing the legal process and refusing to submit to a chemical test, but acquitted of drunken driving.
“Voters who informed themselves about their choice appreciated my broad and deep experience in the law. They also learned that, as a justice, I fulfill my pledge to decide cases based on precedent and principle, not on politics,” Lillehaug said.
Wright said she enjoyed the opportunity the campaign offered to connect with Minnesotans to talk about the vital role the courts play in the community. She attended campaign events in Duluth and the Iron Range, St. Cloud and Rochester and also ran a campaign Facebook page. She said helping Minnesotans understand their ownership of the courts and to make them relevant is an important part of her job.
“I think it’s very important for voters to understand what the attributes of a good justice are. During the campaign, I focused on my background and experience and why I was seeking the position and then on demonstrating how this court serves the entire state,” she said.
There were several contested district court races as and all the incumbents came out on top.
In the 10th District in Anoka County, incumbent Nancy Logering defeated Stacy Lashinski 53 percent to 47 percent.
Also in the 10th District in Washington County, incumbent Susan Miles secured 56 percent of the vote to challenger Julie Lafleur’s 46 percent.
Miles first ran for an open seat in 1996. She said campaigns have changed a lot since then. For example, her campaign website received about 3,000 hits a day the last week or so of the campaign. She said her online presence served as the face of the campaign and gave voters a place to find out more about her candidacy and her qualifications. Her main message to voters was her qualifications.
“The main thing you have to sell is yourself and your track record. I tell people that if it were you or a close friend or a family member that has to come to court, I am the one you want as the judge hearing the case,” she said.
In early 2015 Miles will teach an eight week course on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction for lawyers and judges through the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing. She said through mediation, diet, yoga and other the goal is for participants to develop the ability to respond to stress rather than react to it. She is the first judge in the U.S. to through the certification to teach the program.
In the 7th District in Clay County, incumbent Steven Cahill received 51 percent of the vote to challenger Kenneth Kohler’s 49 percent. Cahill drew three challengers. His opponents said they were prompted to run after Cahill was publicly reprimanded by the Board on Judicial Standards earlier this year for failing to follow the law in six cases and being late to court and discourteous to court staff, among other charges. Cahill said that the reprimand was not a factor to voters.
“We were able to demonstrate that the issues for which I was criticized by the [BJS] were either of little consequence or demonstrated my compassion for defendants faced with serious collateral consequences mitigating strongly in favor of less onerous sentences based upon their circumstances,” he said.
Now that he has been re-elected, one issue Cahill said needs to be addressed in the courts is the plight of the many inmates in county jails that have mental illnesses and chemical dependence issues at the root of their problems.
“I am advocating more attention to the need for treatment, rather than incarceration, for these people, thereby helping to eliminate the conditions which get them into trouble with the law, and thereby reducing recidivism and saving taxpayer dollars in the long run,” he said.
Also in the 7th District in Stearns County, incumbent Andrew Pearson received 57 percent of the vote to challenger Richard Osburn’s 43 percent.
In the 5th District in Cottonwood County, incumbent Christina Wietzema received 56 percent of the vote to challenger Nathan Busch’s 44 percent.
In the 4th District in Hennepin County, incumbent James Moore was re-elected with 66 percent of the vote to 34 percent for challenger Bruce Michael Rivers. Moore credited the dedication and hard work of his friends and family members who helped work on the campaign for his success. He said during the last few months he discussed a wide variety of legal issues with the bar and he wants to continue that conversation. One of his goals following the election is to establish a forum in which the bench and bar can meet and discuss issues of mutual interest or concern.
Also in Hennepin County three open judicial seats were on the ballot.
Amy Dawson won 56 percent of the vote to Beverly Aho’s 44 percent; Bev Benson won 64 percent of the vote to Chris Ritts’ 36 percent; and Bridget Ann Sullivan won 61 percent of the vote to 39 percent for Paul Scoggin.
Dawson said that even though she was outspent by most other candidates in the race, she focused on running a grass-roots campaign. She credits her campaign manager Brittany Edwards with helping her draw wide support. She said she is excited to get started on the judicial training and to meet her new colleagues. One of her priorities is creating an open-data policy to help drive reforms that are evidence-based. She said opening up the courts will help the public see the value the branch provides and “will help all of us to see the broader context of our work, and for the public to better understand, appreciate, and support the judicial system while helping us move towards the most effective outcomes possible.”
Benson said the campaign demonstrated the value of meeting with and listening to the concerns of the people who use and are affected by the courts. She tried to connect with as many people as possible in person and online. She also said the public support she was able to garner from well-respected members of the bar was invaluable. She said she looks forward to all aspects of the new job, from performing weddings to presiding over a jury.
“I look forward to making myself available to resolve cases, to engage in problem solving, and to fulfill my commitment to listen, care about each case and use common sense and life experience in reaching a fair and just decision,” she said. “As a member of the bench, I would like to be involved in facilitating ways to most effectively serve the needs of a diverse community.”
One of her priorities is to foster more effective collaborations between the systems of adult, family, juvenile court and CHIPs cases.
Sullivan could not be reached for comment prior to deadline.
Lori Swanson was re-elected to a third term as attorney general. She secured about 53 percent of the vote. Republican challenger Scott Newman had about 39 percent; Green Party candidate Andy Dawkins had about 1.5 percent; Independence Party candidate Brandan Borgos had about 2.3 percent and Libertarian Party candidate Mary O’Connor had about 1.5 percent.