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Judge candidates field voters' questions

Three of the four candidates vying for election or re-election Nov. 2 to two positions as judges in the Ninth Judicial District Court expressed their philosophies of justice during a forum Wednesday evening in Bemidji City Hall.

Incumbent Judge Paul Rasmussen, who is based in Clearwater County, is running against former Judge Terrance Holter, who served for 27 years but was defeated in the 2006 election. And incumbent Judge Paul Benshoof, based in Beltrami County, is running against Bemidji attorney Darrell Carter, who has been in practice locally for 18 years. Holter did not attend Wednesday night's forum.

Rasmussen, who was elected in 1992, said, "The fundamental job of a judge is to be fair."

All three candidates said laws must be applied equally without consideration of gender, race, ethnicity or economic condition.

Carter said serving people and seeing justice done is his greatest satisfaction.

Benshoof was appointed in 1997 and was elected unopposed twice since then.

About 20 audience members at City Hall submitted written questions read by moderators Brad Swenson and Maggie Montgomery, members of Citizens for an Informed Electorate. Other audience members watched the forum broadcast on cable TV.

The questions posed by the in-person audience members ranged from specific cases, the wording of which the moderators converted to more general queries, to practical issues, such as the cost and difficulties of campaigning in a 17-county district larger than many states and the ages of the candidates in relation to the mandatory retirement age of 70.

In his introduction, Benshoof brought up the political connections of his opponent. Carter has been endorsed by the Republican Party and took part in the Republican booth at the Beltrami County Fair and a Tea Party event.

"I personally believe mixing politics with the judiciary is ... misguided," Benshoof said, noting that he is endorsed by 80 percent of Beltrami County attorneys, 100 percent of Koochiching County attorneys, the White Earth Tribal Council and Academy of Certified Trial Lawyers in Minnesota.

Carter countered that Benshoof's gubernatorial appointment and the law that puts "incumbent" after the name of a candidate seeking re-election as judge is political, too.

"It's who you know," Carter said. "When the judge asks for endorsements, (he) gets his endorsements."

Rasmussen said he is endorsed by 80 percent of Koochiching County attorneys and 60 percent of Beltrami County attorneys in the hometown of his opponent.

The three men - Rasmussen at 52, Carter at 54 and Benshoof at 59 - are young enough, if elected, to fulfill their entire six-year terms as judge before reaching mandatory retirement age. Rasmussen said his opponent, Holter, at 67, would only be able to fulfill half the term prior to retirement.

The three candidates at the forum agreed with the Minnesota law allowing juveniles to be tried as adults in some circumstances.

"But I'm also a firm believer in the juvenile system if the juvenile system can accommodate," Carter said.

They also endorsed the concept of restorative justice, although the three see it in somewhat different lights.

Benshoof said the process brings the offender back into the community, while Carter said the idea is to restore the victim to the condition or status he or she enjoyed before the crime was committed. Rasmussen said he is always looking for more options in the courtroom, and restorative justice offers an additional avenue in making judgments.

Judicial temperament was the topic of one of the moderator's questions.

Benshoof said a judge should be "a person who is going to be fair and calm in the courtroom but tough when necessary."

Rasmussen said "Just treating people right," noting that he always addresses those in his courtroom by "sir" or "ma'am" or by name.

Carter said he has a gift for dealing patiently and tolerantly with people when they are in stressful situations.

The candidates agreed that the public defense system is underfunded and public defenders carry case loads twice as large as they should. Carter said one of the results is defendants sitting in jail too long, so that people who should go to trial make plea agreements.

"People are being denied a fair trial, due process," he said.

Another funding issue, they said, relates to special courts, such as DWI court and drug court. These courts help people change their lives under supervision and help their families and communities, as well.

"People who've had a terrible struggle overcoming their addictions can turn the corner," Rasmussen said.