ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota’s judicial campaigns could take on an overtly political tone after a federal appeals court ruling yesterday that struck down candidate restrictions on party association and fundraising.
The decision by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is the latest victory by the state Republican Party and Golden Valley attorney Gregory Wersal. In a related case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002, the party and Wersal also toppled rules that barred judicial candidates from talking about legal and political issues during campaigns.
Wersal, a past candidate for the state Supreme Court, has argued that the batch of rules prevent the public from making informed decisions in judicial elections. His opponents have said the restrictions were meant to ensure impartiality of judges and minimize politics in their decisions.
Wersal said he planned to urge the GOP to endorse judicial candidates in next year’s election.
“We’re going to start seeing real campaigns. We’re going to see much more advertising involving these campaigns. When people go to vote hopefully they’ll have some idea of who they are voting for and why,” Wersal said.
“This is a great victory for everyone in Minnesota who wants more information on the judicial candidates that appear on the ballot each election,” said Ron Carey, Minnesota Republican Party chairman.
Minnesota has a hybrid system for filling out its bench. Governors typically appoint judges to judicial openings, but those judges must periodically stand for election and can be challenged by outsiders.
Yesterday’s ruling in Republican Party v. White means candidates for spots on district courts and appellate courts will be able to attend political conventions, seek political party endorsements and personally solicit campaign funds as long as the identity of eventual donors isn’t known to them.
A strong majority of the 13-member 8th Circuit panel said the so-called partisan activities and solicitation clauses violated free-speech rights. They also concluded that the restrictions are impractical because they only govern political participation during a campaign.
“The few months a candidate is ostensibly purged of his association with a political party can hardly be expected to suddenly open the mind of a candidate who has engaged in years of prior political activity,” Judge Arlen Beam wrote.
Three dissenting judges, led by John Gibson, said the arms-length restrictions had value.
“The partisan activities clauses and the solicitation restriction each serve an interest that is and has been recognized as compelling — protecting the judicial process from extraneous coercion,” Gibson wrote.
He said candidates endorsed by parties would find themselves indebted “to powerful and wide-reaching political organizations that can make or break them in each election.”
George Soule, who wrote a brief for the Minnesota State Bar Association supporting the restrictions, said he hoped government lawyers would appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. He said it went much further than the 2002 decision and needed to be reined in.
Soule, a former chairman of the state’s judicial selection committee, said he was worried about Minnesota’s judicial races mirroring those in Texas, Illinois and Ohio, where interest groups are sinking millions of dollars into key campaigns.
“Judges should not be influenced by political considerations when they take office,” Soule said. “When you go to court you do not want a Republican or Democratic judge, you want a judge who is going to be fair and impartial and apply the rules and hear your case fairly.”