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Campaign 2008: Detroit Lakes native Tinglestad running for Supreme Court

BEMIDJI - Bemidji's Tim Tingelstad, a native of Detroit Lakes, believes judges should be elected in contested elections, so he's starting at the top in challenging Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice Paul H. Anderson.

"The original intent of the Minnesota Constitution was for the people to elect our judges, and for the governor to appoint judges only when vacancies arise between elections," says Tingelstad.

He opposes a concerted effort to place on the ballot a constitutional amendment asking voters to change that system. Minnesotans for Impartial Courts would instead have a committee pick judges based on merit, and then have voters decide to retain those judges. If not, a new judge would be selected.

"Whether you're a Democrat, Republican or Independent, you really have to take a deep breath and say, why would we want to give up the right to judicial elections?" Tingelstad asks.

Calls for reform come in the aftermath of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Minnesota case where judges have the right to speak what they want on issues, can raise campaign funds and can seek political party endorsement.

While some judicial candidates embrace that freedom, many in the judiciary fear that big-money politics may enter into judicial races, tainting the credibility of a judge who freely takes money or affiliates with a political party and its issues.

Instead of dumping elections, Tingelstad said he hopes the U.S. Supreme Court ruling will instead "create meaningful, contested judicial elections."

It's his hope that "people will wake up and say they've been frustrated with judicial elections in the past as well. But that they do believe we deserve meaningful judicial elections. This is an opportunity that we have, and I'm afraid if we don't take it now, it will forever be gone."

Tingelstad must first get past the Sept. 9 primary, as Alan Lawrence Nelson of Maplewood is also seeking Anderson's seat on the state high court.

Nelson has been practicing real estate, business contract and copyright law for 16 years and has more than two decades' experience as a computer software engineer. Anderson was appointed associated justice in 1994 and elected in 1996 and 2002. Prior, he served two years on the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

A small campaign with a small budget, Tingelstad said much of his statewide campaigning will be this week with a booth at the Minnesota State Fair.

It's the second time for Tingelstad attempting to oust a sitting Supreme Court justice. In 2004, he received 28 percent of the statewide vote against Associate Justice Alan Page. Tingelstad also ran in 2006 for Beltrami County District Court judge, but didn't make it out of the primary.

He did, however, carry the 9th Judicial District Republican endorsement for that election, which eventually saw John Melbye upend incumbent District Judge Terry Holter.

"I've taken the position that there's two ways to remain impartial, non-partisan," Tingelstad says. "One is to speak to nobody when they ask you. Don't speak to the Democrats when they ask you to come, don't speak to the Republicans, don't speak to anybody, that invite you to come -- or speak to everybody."

Either way is equally non-partisan, he said. "I've chosen to speak to anyone who invites me. ... If Democrats invited me to an endorsing convention, I would go to that one as well.

"I have the same message -- I don't have a Republican message or a Democrat message," he says, adding that he hasn't been approached yet by any party for endorsement this year. "I strongly believe judicial elections should remain non-partisan."

Tingelstad wonders if politics of a different sort is used today, as he noted that four of the current seven justices were appointed to the court after they had served on the very committee that recommends judicial candidates to the governor. "Do committees serve the people or themselves?" he asks.

And his message remains the same in now his third run at a judicial post -- justice is served when judges fear God, and love the people.

"Without absolute truth, something beyond man's opinion, then all of our laws simply become rules for manipulation by those in power," Tingelstad said. "If there is not a greater truth than whoever has the most power writing the laws, then we're in trouble."

It's necessary to know the heart and belief system of a judge, he said. "If they don't believe there is absolute truth, then by default they're saying the law can be anything those in power are saying it is. The next group in power can change it."

If one looks under the U.S. Constitution, "there's something greater and more foundational and it's called absolute truth," he said. "There's only one source of absolute truth, it has to be God. If there is no God, there is no absolute truth."

Tingelstad likes to cite the Preamble to the Minnesota State Constitution: "We, the people of the state of Minnesota, grateful to God for our civil and religious liberty, and desiring to perpetuate its blessings and secure the same to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution."

"Grateful to God -- that's the foundation under the foundation," he said. "My belief is we don't have any jurisdiction to define God. We let Him define Himself. And He defines Himself by His Word."

Tingelstad doesn't believe that sort of philosophy crosses the line separating church and state, even though religion could define issues of abortion and the death penalty.

"I'm going to be impartial to the parties, to the litigants," he said. "I will not favor one litigant over another. But I will be totally partial to the law. I'm not going to be ashamed or afraid to tell people what I believe the law says."

Tingelstad says he has no right to change the law, but will be partial to the original intent of the Constitution when interpreting the law.

Impartiality applies to how judges treat litigants, not to what the law means, he said.

"The incumbent, every time he writes a decision, tells you what he thinks the law says, so you can look at his belief, understanding and interpretation of the law," he said. "A person contesting for the seat needs to be able to tell you what he or she believes the law says just as much as the judge."

Tingelstad has been a magistrate for family court matters for the 9th Judicial District since 1999. Prior to that, he was an administrative law judge, saw private practice and was an assistant Beltrami County attorney.

Born in Detroit Lakes and receiving his law degree from William Mitchell College of Law and the University of North Dakota Law School, Tingelstad and his wife, Annette, have two daughters.