PACs pouring money into judicial campaigns – just not in Minnesota

by Elizabeth Stawicki, Minnesota Public Radio  October 16, 2006

A non-partisan Washington D.C.-based group reports special interests have poured an unprecedented amount of money into TV ads for judicial campaigns. Justice at Stake says the money spent on those ads jumped nearly 70 percent in the past two years in judicial races around the country – that is, except for Minnesota. At the same time, many in the legal profession blame Minnesota for the rise in expensive and abrasive judicial campaigns.

St. Paul, Minn. — In 2002, Minnesota’s Republican Party and a Golden Valley attorney won a major ruling at the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices struck down Minnesota’s rule that banned judicial candidates from announcing their views on controversial legal and political issues.

The decision rippled across the nation, particularly in states that elected their judges. Many had similar judicial speech restrictions. Jesse Rutledge of Justice at Stake says since the Minnesota case, special interest groups have increased their spending on judicial races from $1.1 million in 2004 to $1.8 million.

“We’ve seen higher levels of fundraising in almost every state, much more active role for 3rd party interest groups in the campaigns; we’re seeing TV ads that look like they should be for governor,” said Rutledge.

Consider the state of Nevada. In 2003, Nevada’s governor sued the state legislature for failing to pass its budget despite two special sessions. The state had recently amended its constitution so that any tax increase required a 2/3 legislative approval. Nevada’s Supreme Court suspended the 2/3 majority and directed the Legislature to approve education funding by a simple majority.

Becker is the first justice to run for re-election since that ruling. The group, Nevadans against Judicial Activists has paid for an attack ad against incumbent Justice Nancy Becker.

That these kinds ads could come to Minnesota, is state Chief Justice Russell Anderson’s nightmare. The issue was front and center at his inauguration earlier this year.

We are more apt to allocate resources to states that have bigger problems.
- Larry Akey, U.S. Chamber of Commerce”There are those who seek to inject large amounts of money into our system of selecting judges and influence the election of judges and subsequent decisions of judges, I ask the people of Minnesota join me in one unified response. And that is this, ‘In Minnesota justice is not for sale,’” Russell said.

So what’s happened in Minnesota since the Chief Justice’s speech? Not much.

The judicial candidate who has spent the most money so far is John Melbye. Melbye’s spent about $23,000 challenging his former boss, 9th District Judge Terrance Holter. Melbye was Holter’s law clerk. No special interest groups have boosted Melbye’s campaign fund, he’s using his own money.

“I feel that’s the only fair thing to do. I don’t feel ethical to ask people to give me money to get a job,” said Melbye. “If it’s something I feel that I can do and I can then it’s up to me and not other people to pay for that.”

Theories abound why Minnesota may not be attracting well-heeled special interests to spend there money here. Special interests tend to fund state Supreme Court campaigns and Associate Justice G. Barry Anderson is running unopposed. Special interests contribute to judicial campaigns in states where they perceive the legal climate is against their causes. When asked why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has contributed to judicial campaigns in other states, but not Minnesota, spokesman Larry Akey said it was a matter of priorities.

“The business community allocates its resources where it thinks it can do the most good. And in the case of Minnesota, the state already has one of the better legal environments for business among the 50 states. So we are more apt to allocate resources to states that have bigger problems,” Akey said.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce commissions an annual Harris poll that ranks the 50 states on how fair their court systems are to business. Minnesota ranked 14th best this past year but it’s slipped from previous years. Minnesota went from 7th to 14th in fairness to business. Jesse Rutledge of Justice at Stake says Minnesota shouldn’t rest on its laurels.

“These trends are taking place even if they’re not yet obvious in Minnesota. There’s very little reason to think based on national trends that they won’t one day be obvious in Minnesota unless safeguards are adopted shortly,” he said.

Former Governor Al Quie heads up a bipartisan group called the Citizens Commission for an Impartial Judiciary. That commission has been meeting since February to devise a way to keep special interests and attacks ads out of judicial campaigns. It’s expected to issue a recommendation in several months. It’s a bittersweet victory for the state’s Republican Party and a Golden Valley attorney. While they succeeded at the U.S. Supreme Court in changing the landscape for judicial campaigns around the nation, they haven’t succeeded in the state where they brought the original lawsuit, or as some would say, at least, not yet.

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