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Minnesota Supreme Court: Gildea claims experience, Griffith wants public vote

ST. PAUL – Lorie S. Gildea campaigns on her record of Minnesota chief justice, telling voters she helped get more court funding and that she makes decisions based on the law, not her feelings.

Challenger Dan Griffith does not criticize Gildea, but blasts how she got into office: by governor appointment instead of a public vote.

The two appear on Minnesotans’ Tuesday ballot as one of three Supreme Court justice contests.

Griffith and two other challengers of Minnesota Court incumbents focus campaigns on how justices are selected.

Six of the seven high court justices were appointed by governors. Only Justice Alan Page was originally elected. Justices who have been on the court long enough also have stood for election after their original appointments.

However, Griffith said, incumbent justices “have a 66-year winning streak” of not being defeated in public elections.

Gildea centers her campaign on her experience.

“It matters a great deal who leads the third branch of government...” she said. “I’m the only candidate in the race with experience doing that job. My record shows me I am good at it.”

The native of Plummer, Minn., is a University of Minnesota Morris graduate who was a University of Minnesota lawyer before being appointed district court judge. After a short stint there, she was named to the high court and two and a half years ago became chief justice.

She won election in 2008.

When she took the chief justice’s job, the courts had faced three years of budget cuts.

“I was successful in reversing that trend,” she said, by being the judicial system’s “lobbyist in chief.”

“The courts are a constitutional obligation and they have to be funded as such,” she said.

If anything related to court funding would appear before the Supreme Court, she added, she would step aside from the case if her impartiality could be questioned.

Gildea said she makes sure personal feelings do not enter her court decisions.

“We are not swearing to uphold our personal views,” she said. “If we cannot set them aside, then we have to step off the case.”

The chief justice would not directly comment on criticisms others have leveled against of Griffith being closely affiliated with the Republican Party.

“You can see how he has been campaigning and who has been campaigning with,” she said.

Gildea, 51, called for increasing the distance between politics and the courts. “It is very dangerous to insert partisan politics into the judicial selection process.”

Griffith, 50, said he has not sought Republican endorsement and attends events sponsored by any party, or anyone else.

“I will speak to any group,” he said, although he receives more invitations to GOP meetings.

He said he has not campaigned for partisan candidates.

Griffith ran for Appeals Court judge two years ago, when he was fighting cancer. He was in the hospital election night.

He ran then, like now, because he wants the courts to follow state and federal constitutions. He said that has not always happened in the courts, especially when judges have not been elected.

“We the people hold the power, we loan it to our duly elected representatives,” Griffith said.

He questioned the government taking property away from business owners in St. Paul to install a light passenger rail line. People who owned property in the area “did not have a voice in the best way to go about this.”

Griffith said governors usually appoint political allies to the Supreme Court.

Once appointed, “whenever they are up for election, they always win,” Griffith said. “A challenger never effectively challenges them.”

Gildea, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, praised governors for appointing qualified judges.

“I think, fortunately for Minnesota, that governors going all the way back to Al Quie have used the merit judicial selection process,” she said.