Since my colleague, Judge Mark Munger, retired in January, we have been shorthanded at the Duluth courthouse. Case assignments and calendars that used to be divided eight ways are now being split seven ways, and we are starting to feel the strain.
We all know that the process of selecting a new judge can take some time, and it is important to get the right person for the job.
District judges are elected officials in Minnesota, but many judges retire in the middle of their term for a variety of personal, financial or professional reasons. When a mid-term vacancy occurs, the governor chooses a replacement. Like most things in government, that is not as simple as it sounds.
Once a District Court vacancy is certified by the state Supreme Court, people interested in the job apply via the Judicial Selection Commission. This 49-member body consists of lawyers and non-lawyers from all 10 judicial districts in the state; 27 of those members are selected by the governor and 22 by the Supreme Court.
Nine of those members, including at least three non-lawyers, are "at-large," meaning they screen all the applicants statewide. The others represent particular districts, in which they must be residents.
There are four members for each district, including at least two non-attorneys. This ensures statewide continuity and local input, from both the bar and the community. A list of the commission members can be found at mn.gov/governor/administration/appointments/commissionjudicialselection.
Candidates receive a set of application forms, and also typically submit personal letters of recommendation with their package. The commission reviews applications and then selects a group of candidates for interviews. This must happen within 21-42 days of when the vacancy occurs.
By statute, candidates are evaluated on integrity, maturity, health (if job-related), judicial temperament, diligence, legal knowledge, ability, experience and community service. The commission provides a list of three to five nominees to the governor within 60 days of the vacancy. The meetings of the commission may be closed to discuss candidates, but the names of the nominees are made public.
The governor interviews those nominees, but does not have to select one. Historically, however, the governor almost always chooses one of the nominees.
Having gone through this process, I can say without hesitation that it is a stressful time for the candidates. They all want the judgeship, but the uncertainty during the process is a tricky thing with a law practice. They have to keep devoting maximum effort to their current jobs but also start making plans for how they will wrap up their cases in a hurry if they are ultimately selected for the bench.
For our vacancy, Gov. Dayton's commission selected three nominees in anticipation of Judge Munger's retirement, but Gov. Dayton's own term expired before a new judge was chosen.
Gov. Walz now has his commission in place, and interviews of the three nominees took place this week. Hopefully, that happens in the very near future, so we can get a full complement of judges in the Sixth District.
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.