Thursday, March 16, 2006


Silent No More

It's flattering that MDE considers me a major lefty blogger - I try to live up to that standard whenever possible. Backbone MN - apparently we're awesome. You want a response to the "Johnson story"? Here goes.

The question here should not be whether or not Dean Johnson tampered with the credibility of the state Supreme Court. The question is this -
why are Supreme Court justices elected in the state of Minnesota? 'Scuse me while I whip this out.

The case for popularly elected judges sounds solid enough on its face- essentially, the public deserves responsiveness in all branches of government, and should have a say in the makeup of all three branches. An excerpt from the MN Judicial Branch website:
Minnesota’s judges and court personnel strive to provide for the just and timely resolution of nearly 2 million case filings each year, from traffic violations to family court issues to civil and criminal trials. Despite caseloads that have increased significantly over the past decade, we continue to recognize that the public deserves a judicial branch that is accessible, fair, consistent, responsive, free of discrimination, independent, and well-managed.
There's a problem here, however. The state Supreme Court is not only where criminal and civil appeals are heard on a discretionary basis - it is the arbiter of Constitutional law, a subject that is rightfully larger than the passions and biases of the voters. Their primary responsibility is not to the voters, but to the law - namely the state and national Constitutions, and the rights those documents reserve to the government and to the people.
As one of the three branches of government, the judiciary maintains checks and balances with the legislative (House of Representatives, Senate) and executive (Governor) branches of government.The Minnesota Supreme Court also serves as the final guardian of the state constitution and interprets and applies the U.S. Constitution.

But, beyond that, the Supreme Court serves people. Each year hundreds of persons -- individuals, companies, even state and local governments -- bring their appeals of legal cases to this court. Sometimes the decisions the court makes interpreting a law may only affect the people in that case, but often the decisions have an impact on every citizen in the state.
-- "About the Supreme Court", MNSC website
Men and women whose job it is to interpret the laws of Minnesota and, indeed, the United States, should not be subject to election. Putting judges up for election is what causes situations like this - where judges, as fellow elected officials, are in a position where hearing a case, whether the case merits their attention, could put their career in jeopardy. That's not a true check and balance against the power of the Legislature and Executive, that's a rubber stamp for whatever party happens to be able to exert its voting power at the right times. The whole point of an independent judiciary was to ensure that there were forces in the government that could withstand the passions of the electorate, and check the other branches regardless. It's not an un-democratic idea - on the contrary, it goes all the way back to the Federalist Papers, the framers of the Constitution, and the philosophies they sought to imbue in the infant United States of America.

You want true checks and balances? Make the Minnesota Supreme Court's seats appointed positions. That way, you might actually have a case that Dean Johnson's comments constituted tampering. But right now, the justices are elected officials just like Mr. Johnson, and must face the same voters at the ballot box. They have as much right to political self-preservation as Johnson does.

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