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Judge's View: Uncontested judge races a good thing

Judge Dale Harris

There has been no shortage of election drama in Minnesota over the past couple of weeks. A flurry of activity among both Democrats and Republicans has led to some very interesting races for governor, attorney general and Congress. It's shaping up to be a long, hot summer of state politics.

In contrast, the filing period for judicial elections was fairly calm. This fall, there are 88 district court judgeships up for election, and only six of the incumbents are facing challengers. These numbers are consistent with the last couple of election cycles, when there were seven contested races out of 106 in 2016, and six contested races out of 117 in 2014.

Closer to home, all of the races in northeastern Minnesota will be uncontested this year. In my view, this is a good thing and reinforces that most people are reasonably happy with how the court system operates.

Federal judges are appointed for life. Some states have "retention elections" where the public just votes "yes" or "no" on the incumbent judge. Minnesota, however, is one of the states that has open elections for judges, meaning anyone with a law license can run for the office. Although the office is nonpartisan, there are some people who want to inject more politics into these races.

In my opinion, that view is misguided. I intend no disrespect to politicians or political parties. I have good friends in the executive and legislative branches of government, and they serve our community well. But their roles are very different from my role as a judge.

Think about what makes an effective elected official, like a city councilor or mayor. You want that official to have a policy agenda, make specific promises about how they will carry out that agenda, and then keep those promises. Judges cannot do any of that. Taking rigid positions on contested issues would violate our judicial ethics code. Moreover, if the parties before a judge believe the result is predetermined because of that judge's campaign statements, they would have every right to remove the judge from the case.

You also want an elected official to be responsive to their constituents, and accept input into the decisions they make. But judges cannot do that either. I can't talk to parties outside of court or gather information in that way. The other side always has a right to be there, and any facts upon which I base a decision have to come to me in accordance with the rules of evidence and procedure. If someone calls me to make suggestions about a pending case, I have to politely end the call.

And, of course, there is the issue of money. Trying to reconcile campaign finance laws with the judicial ethics code is no small task. Running a campaign — especially in a judicial district that stretches from Moose Lake to Kabetogama to Grand Portage — would take a lot of lawn signs and gasoline. But as judges, we can't know who donates money to our campaign, as that could call our impartiality into question. That means having other people raise the money on the judge's behalf. It's a very cumbersome process.

It is difficult for a sitting judge to talk about judicial elections without sounding self-serving. Our state constitution has made these positions elected, and there are certainly some situations where a contested election might be the best way to ensure accountability.

But most judges I know are not politicians, nor do they want to be. All that time on the campaign trail takes away from the time needed to do the job itself, and we are all plenty busy. My seat is one of those on the ballot this fall, and I am very happy to be running unopposed.

Judge Dale Harris is a judge in the Sixth Judicial District, working out of the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth. He was born in Two Harbors. He and his wife, Barbara, live in Hermantown with their four children.