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Minnesota judicial candidates still reside in free-speech 'gray area'

By The Associated Press
10.18.04

MINNEAPOLIS — For a man who proclaims his faith in God and the truth of the Bible, Tim Tinglestad is pushing the rules.

His campaign for the Minnesota Supreme Court seat held by Justice Alan Page is exploring the limits of what judicial candidates in this state can or should say in their campaigns.

"I carry a biblical world view. I believe in God and I believe in the truth of his word, which is the Bible," Tinglestad said.

Page says he believes strongly that politicizing judicial elections endangers the neutrality of the courts. And he says he's afraid of what would happen if Minnesota had the kind of rough-and-tumble judicial campaigns seen in some other states.

"If we don't have impartiality, we don't have anything," he said.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 in Minnesota Republican Party v. White ruled that the state's strict restrictions on judicial candidates violated their freedom of speech, the Minnesota Supreme Court issued new rules last month that essentially keep those limits in place.

"We're in kind of a gray area. Nobody can exactly tell you what the new rules are," Tinglestad said.

Tinglestad has inched out of the traditional mold for judicial campaigning in Minnesota, where most judges are first appointed by the governor, run for re-election unopposed, and try to stay well above the political fray.

Efforts to break that mold altogether are still tied up in the courts.

Greg Wersal, the attorney who persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the state's restrictions, said the Minnesota Supreme Court essentially ignored that ruling when it issued its latest rules. Wersal said the new rules probably are unconstitutional, too, but he hasn't decided whether to challenge them.

Wersal is due to ask a federal appeals court on Oct. 20 to resolve some issues the U.S. Supreme Court sent back for more proceedings, including whether judicial candidates can seek or accept endorsements from political parties and whether they can personally solicit campaign funds. Currently, they can't do either in Minnesota.

Tinglestad is a Bemidji-based child-support magistrate in the judicial district that covers northwestern Minnesota, a kind of specialized judge with limited powers. He's a former assistant Beltrami County attorney, past president of his county bar association, and president of his church.

He says that while he doesn't believe judicial candidates should say how they would rule on specific issues, he does feel free to tell voters about his core values and beliefs.

Page earned a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame through his exploits with the Minnesota Vikings' "Purple People Eaters" defensive line of the 1970s. He became a lawyer while still playing and went on to win his state Supreme Court seat in 1992.

"We are at a crossroads, if you will, in our judicial system," Page said. "There are those who would move us in the direction of having our judicial system become very political. If you look around the country at the states where that has happened, it has a dramatic impact on people's perceptions to whether the judiciary is impartial.

"It also tends to attract lots of money into the races, both from the candidates and outside groups. And that, as far as I can tell, is unhealthy," he said.

Tinglestad doesn't go as far as some advocates of judicial free speech would. For example, he wouldn't say how he would rule on cases involving abortion or gay marriage.

But he has strong ideas about the relationship between church and state, and what he believes the Founding Fathers intended.

"They wanted a wall of separation that kept the government from interfering with the church and people who believe in God, but they never believed there should be a wall to prevent people who believe in God from influencing the government," he said.

Page declined to say anything about the propriety of Tinglestad's campaign approach. "I do not have a view to express on it," he said.

To wage his campaign, Tinglestad says, he is relying on his Web site and word of mouth. He's campaigned at religious events such as evangelist Luis Palau's crusade at the state Capitol this summer. He handed out literature in East Grand Forks when a Ten Commandments monument that got Alabama's chief justice removed from the bench came to town.

Wersal — who ran against Page in 1998 and also ran for Supreme Court in 1996 and 2000 — said he asked Tinglestad questions about his views on gun control, abortion and gay marriage, but didn't get answers. He said that shows how candidates still have a "lingering fear" of expressing their views.

"To say you're Christian doesn't answer the questions that people want answered and I think people have a right to know," Wersal said.

The state's largest anti-abortion group, Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, hasn't formally endorsed Tinglestad but encourages its supporters to vote for him, the group's spokesman Bill Poehler said.

Page said he's campaigning by talking to groups around the state, focusing on the work that courts do and the administration of justice. He said he talks about the budget issues facing the courts, the workloads imposed on trial judges and the strains on the public defender system. But he avoids political issues.

"My personal views really don't matter. ... I'm not here to reshape the law in my image and likeness," he said.

Another judicial race on the statewide ballot has political overtones, too. Appeals Court Judge David Minge, a former Democratic congressman, is being challenged by Shakopee attorney Paul Ross.

Republican activist Bonn Clayton and Wersal tried unsuccessfully to persuade the state Supreme Court to remove Minge from the ballot, claiming Minge wasn't eligible to run because the seat was reserved for someone from the 2nd Congressional District, and Minge doesn't live in it. Had they prevailed, Ross would have been the only candidate on the ballot. The high court rejected their effort in August, but still hasn't issued the rationale for that decision.

Wersal says he doubts the justices will do so before the election, but expects Clayton will pursue the case in federal court after the detailed ruling comes out.


Related

8th Circuit rethinking Minnesota judges' fund-raising rules

Appeals court withdraws its own three-judge panel ruling, wants to rehear case about whether judicial candidates can personally solicit campaign contributions. 05.29.04

Rules for judicial candidates divide Wisconsin high court
Some justices argue new provisions go too far, could restrict campaigning judges' free speech. 11.07.04

Federal judge tosses N.D. limits on judicial candidates' speech
Existing rules 'pose a chilling effect on a judicial candidate's efforts and desire to express his or her views to the public on problems confronting the judiciary,' court says. 03.23.05

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