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Wersal, others believe judges should be elected

Greg Wersal is seeking the Minnesota Supreme Court seat held by Justice Helen Meyer, a Gov. Jesse Ventura appointee. Wersal, shown at a Beltrami Republican dinner earlier this summer, was instrumental in opening up judicial elections so that candidates can talk about issues and solicit campaign funds. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

Three candidates for statewide judicial offices who carry the Republican endorsement want to see judges elected, not appointed.

Although running diverse campaigns, that's the common thread between the Minnesota Supreme Court candidacies of Greg Wersal and Tim Tingelstad and Minnesota Court of Appeals candidate Dan Griffith.

All three are fighting a system called judicial selection and retention in which the governor appoints a judge, who after a period of years stands for election whether or not to be retained. If voted out, a panel then makes new recommendations to the governor for appointment.

Wersal of Belle Plaine, Tingelstad of Bemidji and Griffith of International Falls are running campaigns that it should be the people who elect their judges, not some panel of elitist attorneys. And in the end, the governor can still appoint whomever he wants, making it a political system, the three say.

A bill in the Senate authored by Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment to allow judicial retention elections. A judge, three years after appointment by the governor, would stand election "yes" or "no" whether to be retained. With a majority of "no" votes, the office would be declared vacant and the governor would appoint a new judge.

In the 2002 White case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Wersal won a ruling that opened up judicial elections to allow candidates to speak on the issues. Previously, candidates only speak to their qualifications and credentials.

He's continually fought the Minnesota Supreme Court in its rule-making over how to handle the White case, most recently having the court's ruling overturned that limited judicial candidates from soliciting campaign funds to only a room of 20 or more people.

While judicial elections have soared to cost millions in other states because of White, Wersal considers some Minnesota rules important.

A judicial candidate cannot know who or how much an individual donates, and donations are limited to $2,000 per person. Knowing that the reports are easily accessed on the Internet, he would bar attorneys from contributing and limit donations to $1,000 each.

"The critical issue in this race is what I've been doing for 15 years," Wersal said Friday in an interview, "which is trying to establish a working election system in the area of judicial elections."

When people vote, they don't usually know anything about judicial candidates other than "incumbent" is before the name of incumbent judges, something not offered to any other office.

"Most of them are running unopposed," he said. "That is evidence of an election system that is dead. It's happened because the judges wanted it to happen that way."

Judges control the system, he alleged, as they also control attorney licensure and the ability to pull licenses for unethical conduct. "They applied it to normal campaign conduct. They said that for a judicial candidate, to state his views on a legal or political issue, was unethical conduct. They said if a judicial candidate personally solicited campaign funds, that was unethical conduct."

Wersal's efforts declared those practices unconstitutional. "These rules were only there for the purpose of keeping these judges in their positions of power."

Now the judiciary is pushing for the constitutional amendment question, he said, as a way to keep the system away from voters. "They want to do away with elections altogether," Wersal said, "and create a system where they're all appointed. There's no check or balance on the power of the governor to appoint."

Wersal says he has nothing against Justice Meyer, except that now she supports the constitutional amendment effort.

Wersal's latest case, to remove "incumbent" from the ballot, is set for a hearing Monday before the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. But the Minnesota Supreme Court two years ago refused to act on the same issue.

"She was there," Wersal said of Meyer. "She was also there when the rules existed that wouldn't let me speak at political party gatherings (also overturned). She could have changed that. She was there when they created the rule that said you had to have 20 people in the audience to ask for money."

Meyer "is right up to elbows trying to protect her position of power," Wersal said. "All I want out of this is a free and open election system. I want to see judges being able to be held accountable."

Being endorsed by Republicans doesn't mean he adheres solely to the GOP agenda, Wersal said. "It's not necessarily that I support them but that they support me." He's also endorsed by the Constitution Party and the Libertarian Party. If the DFL offered judicial endorsements, he'd go there too, he said.

"There's another political party out there, it's called the Incumbent Party," Wersal said. "And they have their designation on the ballot. That's the party I'm running against."

The issue crosses party lines, he said. "I'm telling everyone the same thing -- we have to start with the ability to hold judges accountable and you've got to have an election system that works. That's what I stand for."

With 30 years of experience as an attorney, Wersal said his practice has seen the gamut from bankruptcy cases to criminal law.

And, as an English major in college, Wersal says his writing for judicial opinions would be clear and concise.