Musings on Judicial Races

“On average, one-half of all supplicants to come before a judge’s bench must depart angry and disappointed. But not, by that, necessarily wronged.” –Lupe dy Cazaril, The Curse of Chalion, Lois McMaster Bujold.

Possibly because of the overall heightened interest in politics going around, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about the judicial races, and how you find information about judges. So, I’m going to ramble about that a bit.

I’ll note, incidentally, that if you are super interested in the question of how judges get chosen and what the results are of various selection methods, my father is a legitimate expert on this subject and has written an actual book about it.

In Minnesota, the way we pick judges looks roughly like thismost of the time, they get appointed when someone resigns partway through their term, usually because that judge reached mandatory retirement age (which is 70, and again, this is Minnesota, not everywhere). The Commission on Judicial Selection (half of which is appointed by the governor, half by the State Supreme Court) goes through applications. If you want to be a judge, you apply to them by sending a detailed resume, up to ten letters of recommendation, and releases to let them see a bunch of stuff including, I think, your taxes.  If you make it to semifinalist, you get interviewed, and finalists are put on a list forwarded to the governor for consideration.

This process has its faults. But I generally trust it to weed out the weirdos. I think they usually do a decent job picking out people who are smart, fair, and capable. This is one of the reasons that I tend to err on the side of favoring incumbents in judicial races.

Every six years (or at the first election that occurs after their appointment), judges stand for election.

Most of the time, county judges in Minnesota run unopposed. I’ve gotten a bunch of questions about that this year — why so many unopposed judges? But it’s totally normal, and to my mind, fine. Being a judge is, at its core, a job, and not usually a particularly political job, except in the sense that your politics inform your ideas about the world.

Very occasionally there’s an open seat at election time. We have one in Ramsey County this year. Four years ago there were three open seats in Hennepin County; in one case, the guy who lost was appointed to the bench a few months later, which was great because both candidates looked awesome.

It became legal in 2010 (I think) for judicial candidates in Minnesota to seek and accept partisan endorsements. (Edited to add: okay, my father sent me the citation on this. In 2005, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit ruled that states could not prohibit judicial candidates from engaging in certain partisan activities, including seeking, accepting, and using endorsements from political parties.)

When that happened, the DFL announced they would not be endorsing judicial candidates (although obviously individuals can and do); the GOP was briefly really enthusiastic about it. Then came Michelle MacDonald! This year, the GOP endorsed zero judicial candidates. (At least statewide. It’s possible that some of the local GOP branches did endorsements, or maybe they felt so burned by Michelle they’ve all washed their hands of that part of the process.)

As a judicial candidate semi-lamented to me, it’s not like judicial candidates can go around saying to people, “I want to be your judge.” (He wasn’t really lamenting this — more the fact that just as it’s hard for citizens to evaluate potential judges, it’s hard for a judge to make their case to citizens.) In terms of what you’re going to get from a good judge, all they can say is, “if you come before my bench, I will treat you with rigorous and uncompromising fairness. I will listen well. I will remember that even if this is a run-of-the-mill Tuesday to me, this may be the worst day of your life. If you commit a crime, I will hold you accountable in a proportionate way.” I want judges to prioritize the well-being of children in child custody and child welfare cases. I want them to recognize that ordinary citizens are at an inherent disadvantage in lawsuits between citizens and large organizations. Inasmuch as I care about politics, it’s because I really don’t want a judge who will look at lesbians in a custody dispute and award sole custody to the woman who gave birth because he considers her the only “real” mother; I really don’t want a judge who considers gay panic to be a legitimate murder defense. I’m sure there are Republicans on the bench who are not the sort of assholes where it even matters.

So, if you take a close look at your ballot, you have a whole bunch of uncontested judicial races and then a small number of contested ones. What to even do with these races?

All Those Uncontested Races

It is really rare that a challenger wins in a judicial race. It is vanishingly unlikely that someone would win a write-in campaign. If a Hennepin County judge gave a tiny slap on the wrist to a rapist because he was a good swimmer, in early October when he was up for re-election, I can imagine someone launching a furious write-in campaign and even winning but you would probably have heard. Like, if you ever read a newspaper, log onto Twitter, drive around town where you can see billboards…if it’s that kind of story, you’ll know.

If you see an uncontested judicial race, what that usually means is, “this judge is fine.”

If I have time, I fill in all the dots for the uncontested incumbents. If I don’t, I don’t worry about it. You really do not need to spend a lot of time and energy on these races.

Incumbent vs. Challenger

In a judicial race, I really consider it the job of the challenger to make the case not only that they are qualified, but also that the incumbent needs to be replaced.

I start by checking both websites. If the challenger hasn’t set up a website, or if their website is just “hey, I’m a lawyer, hire me to represent you,” I’m basically done.

If everyone has websites, I next look at endorsements. If the challenger has no endorsements, I’m basically done — that says to me that there’s broad agreement in the legal community that the sitting judge is fine. If the challenger has some endorsements but none of them appear to be lawyers or judges, that’s more or less the same as having zero endorsements.

If the challenger has a bunch of endorsements, especially if they look high-profile, that’s a strong indicator that there’s genuinely something going on here, and I should probably try to figure out what it is.

The reason I take endorsements so seriously: I’m not in a great position to actually assess judges. (I was on a jury once, and I can tell you that Judge Leonard Castro is awesome. The rest of them, I haven’t met.) Fairness, respectful treatment of everyone — basically, the stuff I want in a judge is what everyone genuinely wants in a judge. The lawyers, judges, former clients, etc. are in a reasonable place to assess that person’s skills and temperament.

If it’s an open seat and one candidate has endorsements from a bunch of Republicans and the other candidate has endorsements from a bunch of Democrats, I will assume that both of them are reasonably well qualified but the Democrat is more likely to bring a worldview I like to the bench, and vote that way.

Other Things I Look At

If I’m looking at candidates for an open seat, or at a challenger when there’s a compelling reason to replace an incumbent judge, I look at the person’s resume. Have they shown some professional success? (Jobs at big law firms, long stays with organizations, that sort of thing.) How much trial experience do they have? Any red flags there?  (Things I consider a red flag: job hopping. Looking like maybe he’s not that great of a lawyer. Bad reviews from clients.)

I also try Google, the same as I would for any other political candidate. Judges working in criminal court pretty regularly land in the paper because the cases they’re on get news coverage. (Although not always. First of all, if they’ve been working in Family Court or Juvenile Court, that’s rarely going to land in the paper. I just looked up Leonard Castro and found nothing, and he was definitely working criminal cases in 2016. The case I sat on the jury for was a really small-time criminal case happening between people that the public mostly just doesn’t remotely care about.)

I’ll add to this that if someone’s worked in criminal defense, their name will definitely come up as the defender of some pretty horrifying people, especially if they’ve worked as a public defender. (I just tried Googling Leonard Castro again, and found some cases from when he was a public defender.) It’s really important to recognize that this is how our system works. Criminal defendants have the right to an attorney. That means someone has got to be there to speak for them in order to prosecute. Public defender jobs are always going to be a mixed bag. A friend of a friend was defended by a public defender (A.L. Brown, in fact — currently a candidate for the Minnesota Court of Appeals). This young woman had been arrested for trespassing and burglary, IIRC, despite obviously not being the person on the surveillance video. This went all the way to trial and she was found Not Guilty by the jury, thanks in part to good work from Brown.

But if you’re a public defender (or any sort of criminal defense attorney), you will also defend people who very definitely did the thing they’re charged with doing. Because guilty people also have the right to an attorney. (Link goes to an article about the man who mass-murdered people in a synagogue on Saturday. He was arraigned today, and assigned a public defender.)

On the other hand, if the person took a job for an awful organization, that’s an excellent thing to hold against them. Doug Wardlow, the Republican candidate for Attorney General, has been trying to spin his work for the so-called Alliance Defending Freedom as just a job, ya know, and holy shit no to that line of bullshit. If you’re an in-house lawyer for a hate group, you made a conscious decision to go work for that group. (And I’ll note that you have to click “Agree” with their Statement of Faith and Guiding Principles before you can even see their job postings so yeah, pull the other one, Doug, you lying bigot.)

Super obvious red flags

Sometimes just looking at a candidate’s website will make it clear they’re not the sort of person I want in a judgeship. If they’ve got religious symbols on their website, that’s a bad sign. If they’re talking about a “second, unwritten constitution” (like lying bigot Doug Wardlow) that’s a super bad sign. If they’re emphasizing their religiosity in any way, honestly, that’s a bad sign, unless it’s something like their bio mentioning that in addition to being a judge/lawyer they play the violin and bake casseroles for funerals at their church, Shady Oaks Church by the Lake. (If someone names their church, I’ll usually look it up. If it’s a very conservative church, that’s also a red flag, although I was chatting with a friend recently about a church that opened in her neighborhood that seemed hair-raisingly conservative to her. I looked it up and it actually looked pretty mainline to me.)

Conservative talking points are a huge red flag. So is “WE THE PEOPLE” in all-capital letters.

You’re allowed to follow your own biases

If you had a personal experience with a judge (because you were sued, because you were a victim of a crime or charged with a crime, because you got a divorce…) and you think that judge sucked you can absolutely vote against them. You can tell all your friends to vote against them. You can launch a write-in campaign for your favorite worthy person with a JD and tell all your friends to vote for that person instead of the unopposed asshole who’s up for re-election this year.

I mean, you probably don’t need my permission to do this, but if you do? You have it. (Unless the judge you hate is running against Michelle MacDonald, in which case, you’re going to have to suck it up because Michelle MacDonald would definitely be worse.)

 

Election 2018: 2nd District (Ramsey County) Judge, Court 14

There are two candidates on the ballot:

Robyn Ann Millenacker (Incumbent)
Marcus L. Almon

Here, have a cat picture, so that later I can put in a screen shot and it won’t take over as the “featured image.”

A picture of a cat

Seriously, that’s the only reason.

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Election 2018: 2nd District Court (Ramsey County), Judge 11

Revisiting the open seat now that we are down to two candidates. Here’s what I wrote back in August. Two candidates were eliminated in the primary.

On the ballot in November:

Adam Yang
Scott Flaherty

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Election 2018: Judge, Court of Appeals 2

This is a state-wide race: it is on everyone’s ballot. I almost didn’t notice it was contested, because the challenger didn’t have a website up in time to get it linked from the voter info portal site I use to see what the races even are.

Running:

Lucinda Ellen Jesson (Incumbent)
Anthony L. Brown

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Election 2018: Ramsey County Judge, Court 11

“Court 11” seems to refer to the seat that’s open, but I can’t figure out which judge is in it right now. That person is apparently not running for re-election as the seat seems to be wide open. There are four people running, two of whom will progress to the November ballot.

I just want to note for the record that I think this is a bad way to choose a judge. Even more than any other elective seat, I’m not in a good position to decide whether someone’s going to be good at the job. The Committee on Judicial Selection, which you apply to and which recommends appointments to the governor, and which was handling two seats this year, seems genuinely more qualified to me. (I have no idea why this seat wasn’t filled that way!)

(I’d also prefer retention elections to the system we’ve got now. In a retention election, you vote “should we keep this person, Y/N” when their term expires, and if people vote N, a new person gets appointed.)

The vast majority of what judges do isn’t partisan. “Did this person steal a car?” is not a particularly political question. But of course, politics leak in in all sorts of ways. I don’t want a judge who’s going to discriminate against a gay parent in a child custody case. I don’t want a judge who doesn’t take violence against women seriously. I don’t want a judge who assumes that police officers are always telling the truth. Etc.

Anyway — somewhat frustratingly, I’m going to note — all four of the candidates for this open seat appear to be basically fine and decent people who’d probably be good judges. Here they are:

Scott Michael Flaherty
Adam Yang
Jeffry Martin
Gregory J. Egan IV

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Election 2016 – Judicial Races -4th District Court 45 and 4th District Court 37

When I looked at the candidate lists yesterday I missed the fact that there were in fact two contested judicial races for district courts in Hennepin County.

4th District Court 37

Carolina A. Lamas (incumbent)
Luke Kyper Bellville

4th District Court 45

Paul R. Scoggin (incumbent)
Chris Ritts

I’ll do the 4th District Court 37 first.

Carolina Lamas

Judge Carolina Lamas is a relatively recent appointee — she came to the bench in 2014, appointed by Governor Dayton. She’s relatively young, having graduated from law school in 2003. (Not scandalously young. But probably younger than me.) She’s an immigrant from Peru and prior to becoming a judge, she worked as a public defender and for a nonprofit that serves indigent people who’ve been charged with felonies.

Looking for news stories about her turned up a piece about Hennepin County judges doing free weddings for people on Valentine’s Day this year, and she set a typical (rather than an extremely high) bail for someone back in February. Searching on the guy’s name turned up no additional articles, so I’m not sure whether his trial is still pending or what. (Also, protecting the public is not supposed to be what bail is for; you’re innocent until proven guilty. You’re only supposed to be denied bail, or given an extremely high bail, if you’re a flight risk, at least that’s the theory as I understand it.)

Anyway, overall she seems to be doing a fine job.

Luke Kyper Bellville

If you visit Luke Bellville’s site you’ll probably have the same first thought I had, which is, “wait…Tripod still exists?”

Luke appears to have a family and enjoy sitting in grassy settings. He emphasizes his deep local roots, which I initially read as a fairly standard iteration of Minnesota parochialism (there are people in both Minneapolis and St. Paul who will brag about how they never ever go to the other city, which always makes me want to speculate that they’re secretly a vampire who can’t cross water) but having read up on Carolina Lamas I’m now wondering if he’s trying to channel anti-immigrant sentiment. He also says, “I, having grown up in the inner-city of Minneapolis, have little tolerance for violent crimes, and feel they are the number one thing in the modern era that needs addressing.” So possibly he’s mad about the low bail or that one guy, or again, this actually sounds a little dogwhistle-y.

He does not even hint at any actual qualifications to work as a judge, like having gone to law school. Which is weird, because he appears to indeed be a lawyer. I found his LinkedIn, which adds another odd thing to the mix — he talks about attending the U of  M Twin Cities on both his “hire me to be your lawyer” page and his “vote for me for judge” page but he got his JD in North Dakota. Which is a perfectly reasonable place to get a law degree so why he wants to cover up this fact is bizarre. (And, I mean, on his “vote for me” page, he gets really detailed: “I am a fourth generation Minnesotan who grew up on the West Bank in Minneapolis. I attended Marcy Open Elementary school when it was still on Como Avenue, then Anderson Junior High off Lake Street, and South High School off Cedar Avenue. After this I graduated from the University of Minnesota on the Twin Cities Campus.” Like, you considered it important that you attended Marcy Open but you didn’t want to tell us where you went to law school?)

Anyway, the tl;dr here is that this guy is a flake. Vote for Carolina Lamas.

On to Court 45.

4th District Court 45

Paul R. Scoggin (incumbent)

So two years ago, Paul Scoggin was running against Bridget Ann Sullivan for an open seat and I wrote about it. I thought they both sounded like strong candidates who’d make excellent judges. And in fact Sullivan won the election but Scoggin was appointed to fill an opening the following year.

I went looking for news articles about Scoggin and didn’t turn up anything about his work as a judge. Interestingly, though, I did find a news article from 2013 about a criminal case that he prosecuted and his opponent in the race defended: Minneapolis man who wrecked Lamborghini gets six months in workhouse. The case involved this idiot who was hired to repair, then store, a Lamborghini. (Presumably for the winter months.) He took it for an unauthorized drunken joyride and wrecked it. Then he tried to bill it to insurance and lied about the accident. Honestly, click and read, the whole story is sort of hilarious in an “omg what an idiot” kind of way. (I’ll note that I did some follow-up googling fascinatingly enough, his auto shop is not only still in business but doing fine. He must be one hell of a mechanic. It appears that he committed himself to sobriety and stuck with it, so hurray for the wake-up call he got working as I’m sure everyone hoped.)

Anyway, both Chris Ritts and Paul Scoggin were doing their jobs as expected in that case — I don’t think either did anything wrong. Reading the article I felt a bit more sympathy for the prosecutor, but there’s nothing wrong with defending someone guilty, I mean that’s solidly part of the job of a defense lawyer. I’m not sure how good a deal Chris got for his client — this was a plea deal — but when a guy digs himself that sort of ten-foot pit before he calls you, there’s only so much you can do. (Oh, wait. Plus he had priors, according to the Strib article. He must be an amazing mechanic to still be in business.)

Chris Ritts

Two years ago, Chris Ritts was running against Bev Benson for an open seat and I wrote about it. I thought Bev sounded a little too cozy with the police but I thought Chris sounded super flaky and not overly bright.

His website is less embarrassing now, though it definitely telegraphs “campaign committee of one.”

Searching for news stories on him turns up a couple of different stories about his work as an attorney. He defended a Maple Grove City Council Rep who stole money from her elderly father while working as his caregiver. (Maybe Brad Gerten, R-51A, should give Ritt a call.) Ritt has also worked for the family of a man killed by a Plymouth police officer and won a settlement for a man who sued a St. Paul police officer for excessive force.

The fact that he has only a single endorsement (vs. Soggins’ long list of endorsements) makes me think less “courageous outsider” and more “the people who know this guy don’t actually think he should be a judge,” though.

I would vote for Scoggins.