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Stowman helps keep judge elections clean

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DETROIT LAKES - Judicial elections in Minnesota have traditionally been pretty tame affairs, but the State Bar Association is preparing for the worst.

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Judicial canons once limited what Minnesota judicial candidates could say during a campaign -- nothing about issues that might come before the court, nothing on how they might rule on certain cases. No endorsements were allowed, or personal solicitation of campaign funds.

That system was struck down on the basis of free speech in the Republican Party of Minnesota vs. White case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Now the state could face the same kind of judicial campaigns as seen in other states -- multi-million dollar campaigns for state supreme court and court of appeals seats funded by special interests, and slash-and-burn TV advertising.

In other words, politics as usual, only for judges.

Hoping to nip problems in the bud, the State Bar Association has set up the Judicial Election Campaign Conduct Committee, with attorney David Stowman of Detroit Lakes as its chairman.

"You have to understand that a judicial election is different than an election for the governor or legislative branch," he said. "Gubernatorial and legislative candidates have an agenda, they have a constituency. Judges do not have a constituency, they are more like a referee."

The public is outraged when pro referees are caught betting on games, and justifiably so, Stowman said.

"Certainly none of us would want to be sitting in front of a judge that had taken large campaign contributions from the other side of the counsel table," he said.

While a typical campaign for Supreme Court justice in Minnesota costs $100,000 to $200,000, candidates in Alabama judicial races spent more than $13 million in 2006, Stowman said.

In Wisconsin, judicial candidates recently spent about $6 million on one race. And it was an ugly one, complete with TV attack ads.

"It's getting close to home," he said. "That money comes from people who have money to contribute to those races -- people without clout and money are left out of the equation."

In Washington State, developers put big money behind judicial races. In West Virginia it was a coal company angry about a ruling. In Louisiana, it was environmentalists versus petroleum companies.

"You can see who is trying to buy the influence," Stowman said.

States that have rough-and-tumble judicial elections tend to also have cynical citizenry that don't have much faith in the judicial system, he added.

Minnesota has had a "very clean judicial system up to now," Stowman said.

His committee doesn't have a lot of teeth, but it does have the bully pulpit, and it will use it, he said.

"Our plan, our hope, is to work through the media," he said. "Our only authority is moral authority -- peer pressure and public pressure."

Judicial candidates will be asked to sign affirmation statements pledging to campaign in a dignified manner.

Letters have already been sent to incumbent judges. Filing is July 1-15, and letters will be sent to challengers after filing closes, Stowman said.

The committee is composed of Democrats, Republicans and independents, "divided as equally as we can get,' he said. Members come from across the state, and the committee includes lawyers and non-lawyers, including several state legislators who can provide insight into the campaign process.

"We are looking at statewide contests for supreme court, courts of appeal, and district judges across the state," he said. Candidates may start out with clean, positive campaigns, but "they may panic close to election time, after starting out well. We need a system that can act quickly."

Stowman hopes the committee is a short-term solution, and that the Legislature acts next session on the Quie Commission recommendations to change the way the state handles judicial elections.

They would be appointed by the governor (as most are now anyway, due to mid-term retirements) and subject to recall elections. This system has worked well in states that have adopted it, Stowman said.

The Minnesota Bar Association supports the recommendations.

It will require a constitutional amendment approved by voters, but independent observers say the state needs to act soon.

"No state that elects judges can avoid the new politics of judicial elections. And experience in other states shows that it's much easier to reform judicial selection before elections grow costly and nasty," said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake.

Should Minnesota switch to a constitutional system of merit selection with retention elections, it would become the 17th state in the nation to adopt that system for its highest court. Many other states use a similar system for choosing lower court judges as well.

Justice at Stake is a nonpartisan national partnership of more than 45 state and national organizations working to keep courts fair and impartial.

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