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So many judicial races, so few challengers

Luke Bellville readily concedes that when he decided to throw his hat in the ring and run for a seat on the Hennepin County District Court bench he wasn’t propelled by a burning ambition to don the black robe.

For that matter, Bellville wasn’t especially optimistic about his chances, either.

But he was dismayed by the lack of competition in judicial elections in Minnesota, where an overwhelming majority of incumbent judges up for election don’t have a challenger.

“What kind of a process is that?” asked Bellville, 43, of Minneapolis.

Such complaints are nothing new.

In keeping with a trend that stretches back more than half a century, just seven of the 96 incumbent district court judges on the ballot this year face a challenger.

The overarching explanation for the dearth of candidates is no secret, either. Unseating an incumbent judge is hard. In some election cycles, including the last one in 2014, not a single sitting judge tasted defeat.

After reviewing historical election data, Bellville was convinced that challengers fared best against incumbents who were recently appointed to the bench and had not yet gone before voters.

Bellville said he wanted to test the theory so he filed against Hennepin County District Court Judge Carolina Lamas, who is heading into her first election since being appointed to the bench by Gov. Mark Dayton two years ago.

“I won’t be unhappy if she wins,” said Bellville, who added that he’d heard good things about Lamas. “For me, it’s just a statistical thing. I might wind only up with 22 percent of the vote, I don’t really care. I just want to see what happens.”

That devil-may-care attitude is reflected in Bellville’s relaxed approach to campaigning.  Bellville, who was admitted to the Minnesota bar in 2012 but supports himself principally as a house painter, admits he hasn’t bothered with yard signs or fundraising or networking.

Like Bellville, 3rd Judicial District candidate Craig Monnier thinks a challenger’s chances are better against a judge who hasn’t gone before voters previously, which is why he decided to take on incumbent Jeffrey Kritzer, who was appointed to bench by Dayton in 2014.

“I don’t want to point fingers. I’m sure my opponent is a wonderful, God-fearing fellow but the whole point of having an election is that the person who stands for election is accountable,” said Monnier, a self-described small town attorney with a practice that runs the gamut from DWI defense to estate planning to divorces.

As a first-time candidate, Monnier said, he is self-funding so he is keeping spending at a minimum and trying to make up with it by speaking to as many community groups as he can to get his message out.

“I can’t predict what’s going to happen. We may get beat by a million votes,” Monnier added. “But it’s been more enjoyable than I thought it would be.”

Other challengers are mounting more conventional campaigns.

Attorney Timothy Guth of Caledonia, who is running against 3rd Judicial District Judge Carmaine Sturino, said he’s already spent about $40,000  on his campaign – and that’s without buying TV or radio ads.

A solo practitioner who specializes in criminal defense, Guth, 58, said it’s expensive to get a message out in the sprawling district, which encompasses 11 counties. Along with distributing fliers and yard signs, Guth said he’s bought ads in 37 newspapers.

“The residents of Houston County should be voting for the Houston County judge. I don’t know why we have to run in 11 counties,” Guth said. “People in the outlying counties don’t know the candidates, so they just vote for the incumbent. That’s a pretty hard hurdle for a challenger to overcome.”

Minnesota’s use of an incumbent designation on the ballot is a long-standing complaint for challengers like Guth.  Just three other states — Arkansas, California, and Michigan — include a similar designation on their judicial ballots.

Hennepin County District Court Judge Paul Scoggin, one of just two 4th Judicial District judges facing a challenge this year, says he understands why challengers are aggrieved.

At the same time, Scoggin said there are good arguments in favor of the incumbent designation: Most voters know virtually nothing about judicial candidates aside from whatever they glean about gender and ethnicity from the name on the ballot. Since most incumbent judges are initially appointed to the bench, he added, the designation lets voters know that they passed through a merit selection process.

That sliver of extra information may not be much but, in Scoggin’s view, it’s better than nothing.

“It’s one of the few things you can know when you go into the booth,” he added.

Scoggin, a career prosecutor with Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, was appointed to the bench by Dayton in January 2015, just two months after losing a race for a rare open seat on the Hennepin County bench.

Chris Ritts said that’s one reason he decided to challenge Scoggin.

The other?

“I think there are too many prosecutors on the bench,” said Ritts, a principal at the Minneapolis firm of RITTS & Associates P.A. “We need more judges with civil backgrounds.”

Ritts, who ran unsuccessfully against a former prosecutor two years ago (Hennepin County Judge Bev Benson), said he thought long and hard before deciding that he was up for another run.

Ritts said he’s not sure how much he’ll spend on the race but estimated that he’s already shelled out about $10,000.

This year’s dearth of challengers in judicial races isn’t restricted to the district court bench. Among the nine judges on the Minnesota Court of Appeals up for election, all are running unopposed.

In the only statewide contest, Supreme Court Justice Natalie Hudson, another recent Dayton appointee, does have an opponent — West St. Paul family law attorney Michelle MacDonald.

The bid marks a second stab at a high court seat for MacDonald, who sought to leverage the endorsement of the Republican Party two years to unseat Justice David Lillehaug.

This year, MacDonald didn’t get the GOP endorsement and the race has been much quieter. According to campaign finance filings from September, the candidate had raised just $150 and spent less than $1,000 so far. In contrast, Hudson has reported donations totaling over $39,000.

There are plenty of explanations for the challenger’s anemic financial totals — for one, MacDonald has been embroiled in nearly nonstop controversies in the past two years — but nonetheless they do beg the question: What happened to all those big-spending outside groups that many critics long  predicted would inevitably “politicize” Minnesota’s judicial elections?

The warning bells first started clanging 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White struck down a judicial ethics rule that barred candidates from announcing their views on political and legal issues on the campaign trail.

The grim prognostications picked up stream in 2010 after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Citizens United v. FEC and struck down restrictions on “electioneering communications” by outside groups.

And yet Minnesota’s judicial elections have remained much as they’ve long been — largely unnoticed affairs that seem almost entirely disconnected from public sentiments about the important issues of the day.

David Schultz, a professor of political science at Hamline University, said he’s not sure why there has been so little change.

“People have been waiting for that really ugly election where some group dumps a million dollars to win a Supreme Court race but, for some reason, that hasn’t happened. Fifteen years out from the White decision and we seem relatively impervious,” said Schultz.

That’s a pronounced contrast from Wisconsin, where Supreme Court races have attracted millions of dollars in outside spending and the court has become a symbol of the state’s partisan dysfunction.

What’s different about Minnesota?

“I think there’s still relative happiness among the elites with the courts in Minnesota,” Schultz ventured. “And I think the Supreme Court has done a pretty good job of keeping itself out of major political controversies. They’ve avoided the sorts of really tough questions that bring outside money into the races.”

Greg Wersal, the former candidate for the Minnesota Supreme Court who successfully challenged Minnesota’s campaign rules for judges in White, has a different take.

In the wake of White, Wersal said, the Minnesota Supreme Court responded by enacting new rules that effectively handicap challengers.

“Now they have a rule that says candidates can’t personally solicit funds unless there are 20 people in the room., which works perfectly for the incumbent judges, because they can go to the large firms and collect money but it is a lot harder on the little guy who isn’t going to the big firms,”  Wersal opined.

In Wersal’s view, such rules, coupled with the continued use of the incumbent designation on the ballot, prevent serious challengers from taking the plunge.

“Look at all the incumbents who don’t have anyone running against them. That’s a symptom of a system that does not work,” he said. “Nobody is going to run for a position unless they think there is a chance they’re going to win. They’re not going to waste their time.”

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