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Other Opinions -- Corrupt judges: We can't let this fiction become our reality

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news Detroit Lakes, 56501
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

Imagine this scene: a jury in a small Mississippi town returns a $41 million verdict against a notorious chemical company for dumping toxic waste into the town's water supply.

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In an attempt to avoid liability, the chemical company appeals the case to the Mississippi Supreme Court for final review.

The chemical company, fearing that the court would not lean in its favor, decides to influence the appeal through an upcoming judicial election. During the election, the company invests a few million dollars in the campaign of a pro-business candidate. In the course of a highly negative political campaign, its candidate is elected to the Supreme Court.

Fortunately, this story is based on a fictional tale in John Grisham's new book, The Appeal. However, sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.

Across the country, state court systems are being auctioned to the highest bidder, as politics and special interest money infect our courts.

Over a five year period in the mid-1990s, the winning candidates for the Texas Supreme Court raised a total of $9.2 million, with 40 percent of that money contributed by individuals or surrogates that had pending cases before the court. It is hard to argue that these contributors did not expect something in return for their generous investment.

Unfortunately, Texas is not alone in experiencing these problems. We only need to look across the border to Wisconsin, where candidates spent $6 million during the most recent Supreme Court race, which the Associated Press called the "nastiest and bleakest" in the country's history.

Minnesota is not immune from these problems. Until 2005, it was considered unethical for judges in Minnesota to seek endorsements from political parties and special interest groups, or to proclaim their personal positions on controversial issues that may come before the court when standing for election.

However, a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision decided that these rules violate judicial candidates' right to free speech. This turn of events makes it increasingly likely that Minnesota's historically fair and impartial courts could soon be up for sale.

Across the country, judicial elections are becoming expensive, rancorous partisan campaigns into which special interest money flows without end.

We do not want or need this style of justice coming to Minnesota.

This legislative session, state leaders can safeguard our courts from influence of special interest money by creating a judicial merit selection and retention election process. These changes will focus judicial elections on actual performance on the bench, instead of special interest attack ads.

It will also place a renewed emphasis on a public discussion of the quality and performance of judges, rather than political issues, and will better inform citizens about their choices prior to judicial elections.

Currently, 90 percent of judges run unopposed in Minnesota, leaving the voting public with no real choice. A retention election will force every judge to face an up or down vote, and the performance evaluation commission will provide voters with an independent evaluation on how each judge is doing.

This type of accountability will ensure the legitimacy of judicial elections and the courts' decisions.

It is not surprising that some district court judges resent this proposal. A retention election system will shine a bright light on the way that some judges operate, even if they would prefer to stay in the shadows.

But it is surprising that some legislators are content with waiting, because they fail to see the crisis coming to Minnesota.

We cannot afford to wait for a for the first $5 million Supreme Court campaign to hit Minnesota. Once established, a Texas-style judicial system will take a generation to repair.

Minnesota needs leaders that will be proactive to avert a potential crisis, rather than sit idly by for the collapse of the impartiality of the judicial system to occur.

While most of us never have to open the courthouse doors and stand before the bench, the decisions issued by the judiciary impact our families and communities.

We all want impartial and neutral judges who are free to make decisions based on the law and facts of the case, not judges who makes decisions premised on the desires of special interests, political parties, or the judge's campaign contributors.

As fiction, Grisham's story makes a great read. But we would never want this type of narrative to play out in our own lives.

In Minnesota, we expect judges to be fair and impartial. All legislators should support a constitutional amendment this legislative session that provides for performance evaluation and retention elections for judges.

(Mike Dean is the executive director of Common Cause Minnesota, a citizen advocacy group that is committed to honest, open and accountable government. For more information, visit the group's Web site online at http://www.commoncause.org/mn)

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