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Judge voices support for retention elections

Retention elections would help the public continue to have faith in the judiciary, 9th Judicial District Judge Shari Schluchter said.

"I am supportive of retention elections," she said as she presented a program Wednesday for the League of Women Voters of the Bemidji Area.

The Minnesota Citizens Commission for the Preservation of an Impartial Judiciary seeks to have voters this fall -- if the Legislature allows it -- approve a constitutional ballot question that would create a "retention election system."

Through the system, all judges would be appointed by the governor, after being screened by a commission of nearly 30 members.

The judge would hold office for three years and then be subject to an election without opponents. Another commission would evaluate the judge and issue a report that the judge is either "qualified" or "unqualified" to be retained. Winning that election would yield an eight-year term.

Losing it would mean the first commission would go through the process again and recommend an appointment for a three-year term.

Schluchter said the group pushing the retention election concept believe it would promote and maintain a high-quality judiciary, providing accountability to the people and the rule of the law.

Schluchter also spoke about other aspects of the judiciary Wednesday, from potential budget cuts to DWI court.

She said the proposed budget for the 2008-09 fiscal year provides for a significant cut to the state judicial branch budget. She said, for example, the judicial branch's projected appropriation from the state Legislature is $13 million less than the judicial branch's projected employee costs.

Nearly 94 percent of the 9th Judicial District's budget is personnel, Schluchter said. She said budget cuts would greatly impact the district.

"We're starting to be very, very concerned," she said.

Schluchter said there is significant discussion in the district about closing courts offices, not in Beltrami County, but in lower populated areas. Other possible effects of budget cuts, she said, may include reduced office hours, civil cases given a lower priority and longer jail stays.

Meanwhile, Schluchter said she is pleased with the progress of the Beltrami County DWI Court, a system where multiple-conviction DWI offenders are given intensive supervision, coordinated through all facets of the criminal justice system. The DWI court's mission is to enhance public safety through the reduction of DWI recidivism.

Schluchter, who is the lead judge for the DWI court, said the "problem-solving court" began taking clients in June and now has 13 clients.

"I think, so far, we're very optimistic," she said.

Schluchter said the DWI court is currently funded with a grant from the state Department of Public Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. She said the DWI court received the grant because of the high rate of alcohol-related deaths in Beltrami County.

She said grant expires in September, but the DWI court plans to reapply for an additional grant due to the success of the program.

Schluchter also spoke about her appointment as district court judge three years ago and the variety of the job.

"I do soup to nuts," she said. "It's exciting. It's new."

Schluchter said she hears a variety of cases, including divorce, medical malpractice, criminal, juvenile, probate and mental health cases.

She also said all 23 district court judges travel throughout the district to hear cases.

"We're not just in our home counties," Schluchter said. "I spend most of my time in Beltrami County, but that is because Beltrami County is a very busy county."

Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed Schluchter in 2005. One year later, she ran unopposed and was elected for a six-year term.

"I love my job," Schluchter said. "I'm very grateful for Gov. Pawlenty appointing me. I'm grateful that he gave me the opportunity."