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Judicial candidates spar in forum

BEMIDJI – Candidates for the Ninth Judicial District post in Beltrami County questioned each other’s experience during a forum at City Hall Tuesday night.

The forum, hosted by the Citizens for an Informed Electorate, featured Diana Sweeney, a public defender in the Ninth Judicial District since 1996, and incumbent Judge John G. Melbye, who was first elected in 2006.

During the forum, Sweeney said she was running because she saw a need for more experience on the bench.

“His skill level and knowledge of the law is not where I think it should be,” Sweeney said of Melbye. “And that’s why I was motivated to run for judge.”   

Melbye countered that Sweeney doesn’t have experience in the judiciary, while he had an “intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the judiciary” when he took the bench.

“My opponent knows very little about the judiciary. She has never worked in the judiciary,” Melbye said. “I have over 10 years of working in the judiciary, the last six years as district court judge.”

While discussing issues facing the judicial branch, the two seemed to agree on some issues.

Both agreed that the DWI court program has been a success.

“I can probably count on one hand the folks that I had that have failed DWI court,” Melbye said. “So it’s working.”

Sweeney added that it’s a good example of putting resources on the front end of the judicial process.

“With DUI court, or any problem-solving court, they’re trying to get at the behaviors that underlie the person’s own situation causing them to come into trouble with the law,” she said.

On the issue of how much discretion the judge has in sentencing, both said there is a proper balance in place. Melbye said the current guidelines give judges enough power to hand down a proper sentence without giving them too much to do “outrageous things.”

“We need some discretion in there, because we have human beings in front of us,” Melbye said. “Every burglary is not the same; every theft is not the same.”

Several times during the forum, Melbye touted his work to improve monitoring warrants in Beltrami County. He said Beltrami County had 3,400 warrants when he took the bench, evidence that judges were issuing warrants but not monitoring them regularly.

Sweeney said she’s spent time mentoring young lawyers and sitting on legal committees, while volunteering in her local community. She said she would work to improve communication so people understand how a decision was made, and also between the court and law enforcement.

“I think communication is an important key to a successful court,” Sweeney said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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