Thissen and MacDonald square-off for Supreme Court seat

This will be the fourth consecutive general election that Michelle MacDonald has challenged for a supreme court seat and the first election for Associate Justice Paul Thissen, who was appointed to the seat by former-Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton in 2018.

ELECTION 2020 DLPF web graphic

After being appointed to the Minnesota Supreme Court, new justices must stand for election in the first general election after their first year of being appointed, which is where Minnesotans will find themselves on Election Day; deciding between incumbent Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice Paul Thissen and challenger Michelle MacDonald, a family law lawyer and mediator.

Thissen was appointed to the state-high-court by Governor Mark Dayton in 2018 and MacDonald has challenged incumbents for Minnesota Supreme Court seats in the past three general elections.

"Our purpose as a country, and it says it in the preamble of the Constitution, is to establish justice and that means for everybody," said Thissen. "It's a serious job and one that I take really seriously, and I believe I have enough experience and a fair temperament to make sure Minnesotans constitutional rights are defended, the rule of law is upheld, and the powerful are held accountable."

  • Guide to Detroit Lakes school board candidates
  • Guide to Detroit Lakes area legislative candidates
  • Meet Detroit Lakes mayoral and council candidates
  • Prior to being appointed, Thiessen represented parts of south Minneapolis in the Minnesota House of Representatives from 2002 to 2018 and served as speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2013 and 2014.


    Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice Paul Thissen.

    "The differences between running for the legislature and running for judge really reflects the differences in the roles," said Thissen. "A legislator is there to make policy, and that becomes a partisan exercise, and as a judge, I'm not there to make policy. That's not my job anymore. My job is to enforce the intention of the legislature."

    Judges don't talk about a lot of political issues, Thissen said, but ensuring the court system works fairly for everyone administratively, so everyone has a chance to participate, is something that supreme court justice's must weigh when allocating their budgets. The budget process requires the court to submit their budget request to the legislature, which allocates the funding back to the court.

    MacDonald said she believes the administrative budget process in the state's judicial branch is one of the ways the courts practice the status-quo without making the changes needed to the system.

    "Why are they budgeting for the bureaucracy and why are they not budgeting for restorative services?" said MacDonald.

    She said the budget process of taking the previous year's budget and either adding, or subtracting, a small amount does nothing to change the court's services, or focus, which she said is most needed.

    MacDonald is an advocate for mediation and family law. She is also a founding member of the nonprofit group, Family Innocence Project, which is dedicated to keeping families out of the courtroom, if possible.

    "You do not get free legal help, you have to pay," said MacDonald. "So, how come all of the money is going into the prosecutions of us and not to our assistance?"


    Michelle MacDonald

    In 2014, MacDonald campaigned against Associate Justice David Lillehaug and received 46.5% of the vote. In 2016, MacDonald squared-off with Associate Justice Natalie Hudson and received 40.7%. And most recently, in 2018, MacDonald ran against Associate Justice Margaret Chutich and received 43.7% of the vote.

    MacDonald also had her law license suspended for 60 days in 2018 for disparaging a judge, whom she said wasn't being objective. She also received two years of supervised probation while practicing law.

    "It was because I sued a judge, and took that all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the judge didn't like it," said MacDonald.

    She said the judge wrote a letter to the Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards after the lawsuit and said that she had violated some court rules, which caused her suspension.

    MacDonald also said she believes part of the "corruption" of our judicial system occurs when a sitting state judge retires. Then, she said, a replacement is appointed through the governor, who makes their selection from the Commission on Judicial Selection, a non-partisan organization of lawyers and non-lawyers, but that appointee is given an "incumbent" label on the ballot, which can encourage voters. No incumbent Minnesota Supreme Court justice has lost an election since the 1940s.

    Campaigning and fundraising for a nonpartisan, judicial race is also different than a normal campaign because of the "standard of judicial conduct," said Thissen.


    "I don't ask for the money," he said. "We do raise money as a campaign, but other people on my campaign team do the outreach and the asking for the money and I don't know who's given to the campaign."

    Thissen said there are financial reports that every campaign needs to file with the state, but that he doesn't personally look at the donors list. MacDonald said she doesn't think it's appropriate for judges to raise money for their campaigns.

    Thissen also said another way judges can have an impact on changing the court system is to setup the rules for the court, like encouraging lawyers to offer more pro-bono work, which is one way the court system can provide more equitable treatment. He added they are currently piloting a program to have paralegals offer some legal advice to appellants, in some cases like eviction or family law, who may not be able to afford a lawyer.

    "The main thing that I want people to do, and to remember, is to vote, and to vote for judges, you have to turn over the ballot," Thissen said. "Make it all the way to the back side of the ballot and then make an informed choice."

    Lead Multimedia Reporter for the Detroit Lakes Tribune and the Perham Focus.
    What To Read Next
    Get Local