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Gildea seeks to keep seat on Minnesota Supreme Court

Lorie Skjerven Gildea

BEMIDJI - In a race already made high profile by a statewide recount, a long-time district court judge hopes to unseat a Minnesota Supreme Court associate justice.

Added to that is the side argument of whether Minnesotans should continue to elect their judges, or have a special committee select them and only let voters decide to get rid of them.

Supreme Court Associate Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea sailed through the Sept. 9 primary, leaving two challengers behind. But the first statewide recount in 40 years recount had to settle who would be No. 2, which finally went to long-time Hennepin County District Judge Deborah Hedlund.

"The recount showed us we should have trust and confidence in the Secretary of State's Office and in the county auditors," Gildea said Friday in an interview while attending a district judges meeting in Bemidji.

Hedlund defeated Twin Cities attorney Jill Clark for the right to oppose Gildea, presenting a race of two judges.

Hedlund was appointed by Republican Gov. Al Quie to the Hennepin County District Court in 1980 and has stood for election five times since then, serving 28 years on the bench.

Gildea had a long career as a civil attorney, including 11 years as general counsel to the University of Minnesota before serving about nine months as a Hennepin County prosecutor.

Appointed to the Hennepin County District Court in September 2005, Gildea was then appointed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty to the Supreme Court in January 2006. This year is Gildea's first election.

"It is unique," Gildea said of her race, adding that Justice Rosalie Wahl (1977-94) was the last justice challenged by a trial court judge.

Hedlund has put her campaign on the Web, featuring several pieces on, with the primary focus that only one justice has trial court experience and that experience is only four-plus months long. She, meanwhile, has 28 years of experience as a trial court judge.

"A primary job of the Supreme Court is to review the decisions of the trial court including direct appeals on Murder 1 cases," Hedlund states in a campaign disclosure form filed with the Secretary of State's Office. "Unfortunately, of the seven justices currently serving on the Supreme Court, only one has spent any time as a trial judge and then only four months.

"None of them (has) ever tried a Murder 1 case as an attorney or trial judge," she wrote.

Gildea, however, found it interesting that Hedlund would then target the only judge that has trial court experience, be it only four months.

"If the argument is that the Minnesota Supreme Court doesn't have enough justices on it with trial court experience, the question you have to ask is then why are you running against the only one of us that has any trial court experience?" Gildea asks.

"I do have trial court experience, and I think that experience is part of the broad base of experience that I have that makes me a good justice," she said. Hedlund has served as a trial court judge for much longer, "and that length of experience might be a relevant consideration for the voters if we were running for a job on the trial court."

The job is the Supreme Court, and Gildea said she has years of experience on that job, "and she has zero."

Trial court experience isn't irrelevant, Gildea said, but it's not as relevant as doing the actual job that is at issue. "And I'm the only one with that experience," she said.

A trial court judge applies the rules of criminal procedure, while the Minnesota Supreme Court writes the rules, she said. A trial court judge decides between two witnesses of which should be believed. The Minnesota Supreme Court interprets the State Constitution.

"The jobs are very different," Gildea said.

"The No. 1 issue for me has been just trying to build the trust and confidence that people have in their judges in Minnesota, and I've really been using the campaign as an opportunity to talk about what the Supreme Court does, what does it mean to be a justice on the Supreme Court," Gildea said.

She's also been using the campaign to talk to Minnesotans about judicial selection in Minnesota. An effort continues to move forward to put on the ballot a constitutional amendment to allow an appointed committee to select judges in Minnesota, allowing the public only to recall judges in a "retention" election.

"There is a great fear that many of us have that there's going to be a push to turn out judges into politicians out on the campaign trail," she said what could happen on the opposite end of the spectrum. "I think that's bad, and we have to guard against that."

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling opened up Minnesota's judicial races, allowing candidates to seek partisan party endorsements and actively seek campaign donations.

Gildea said she's using her campaign to "prompt" that discussion among Minnesotans, and that she doesn't have a personal preference for the "selection-retention" proposal.

"The system, that we have has served us well," she said of the governor appointing a judge who then stands for election in the next general election.

"Our judiciary ranks very highly in national polls and in our own surveys, and I think our judiciary ranks so highly because of the care that goes into picking our judges in Minnesota," Gildea said.

"But my real point in having the conversation with the voters is not to suggest an outcome," Gildea said. "It's not up to judges to tell the people in Minnesota how to pick their judges. It is up to us to prompt the conversation, to let the people know this is a potential issue for us in Minnesota, and everybody should be thinking about it, so all the voters can make up their own mind and not let somebody else make it up for them,"

Gildea says she has no public position on the issue, "other than we have to keep politics out of judicial elections as much as we possibly can, because I think if politics creep in, it's just going to cause people to lose trust and confidence in their judges."

In the only other contested Supreme Court race, Associate Justice Paul Anderson is being challenged by Bemidji court magistrate Tim Tingelstad, who is campaigning on the principle that Minnesotans must retain the right to elect their judges.

Gildea said it's fitting for such a discussion this year, when the state celebrates its 150th anniversary as a state.

"It's very important for the people to make that decision," she said. "This is the exact same conversation that we were having in Minnesota 150 years ago when our founders wrote the Constitution -- should we have elected judges, should we have appointed judges?"

Lafayette Emmett, Minnesota's first chief justice, was a strong advocate for elected judges, she said. He asked who should appoint judges, and the answer he got was the governor. "His point was, if the people are qualified to pick the appointing authority, but they're not qualified to pick the judges? He didn't think that argument made a lot of sense."