All but one of the 320 judicial positions up for election in Minnesota in November—a district judgeship in the southwest metro—have already been chosen.
The sole district court bench election in Minnesota will take place in the First Judicial District, which includes the counties of Carver, Dakota, Goodhue, Le Sueur, McLeod, Scott, and Sibley. Prior Lake attorney Matthew Hanson decided to run against incumbent Charles Webber.
Webber, who was born in the Twin Cities but now calls Lakeville home, is basing his candidacy on experience. After almost three decades of legal practice in Minnesota, Webber was chosen by Governor Tim Walz in April 2021 to fill Rex Stacey’s vacancy as a district court judge.
According to Webber’s biography on his campaign website, “If it were my life, my freedom, or my family on the line, I would want a judge with expertise who would be polite to me, listen to me, evaluate all of the facts, and make a fair judgment based on the law.” “… I like my job as a judge and would do everything to keep helping the people in the First Judicial District and the State of Minnesota.”
Hanson, a fifth-generation Scott County citizen who attended William Mitchell Law School before passing the bar exam in 2018, is running on the promise of providing a new viewpoint to the judiciary. He emphasizes his commitment to justice, objectivity, and equality under the law for all individuals.
“I am the go-to choice here. I performed construction work in Carver County and the line at a factory in Le Sueur County prior to attending law school. I hunted deer with an archery on the Goodhue County bluffs. I enjoyed swimming, skiing, and fishing in Scott County’s lakes. I went on a trek along Sibley County’s Minnesota River banks. I used to work at a Dakota County restaurant when I was younger. Farmer and resident of McLeod County, my great-great-grandfather,” Hanson told Forum News Service. “It is my goal that residents of the First Judicial District of Minnesota will fulfill their constitutional obligation to vote for a local judge from their neighborhood.”
The victor will join a group of 36 judges in the First Judicial Circuit and serve a six-year term with five other justices in Scott County.
Even though every election is different in and of itself, historically speaking, challenges to incumbents in Minnesota’s court have been extremely unusual.
Dr. Herbert Kritzer, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota Law School, has spent most of his life researching political science and, more specifically, judicial selection in the United States. He has written 13 books and more than 130 journal articles, almost all of which explore the legal and judicial spheres in some way.
Kritzer studied Minnesota’s judicial elections historically as part of his dissertation. He said that four to nine judicial races are often up for election. Although it is uncommon, holding just one contest is not unheard of, and for good cause.
“Who is seeking to overthrow a judge in office? Most likely, it’s a lawyer. They will have to go in and stand before the current judge if they lose to the judge in office, Kritzer said. “I’ve researched matters pertaining to recusal… and discovered that there were only a very, very tiny number of occasions in which a lawyer requested that a judge be removed from office because the lawyer had opposed the judge in an election that did not result in the recusal. A significant disincentive.
Kritzer brought out the inconvenience of having to face an opponent as well as the rarity of incumbents losing in Minnesota.
Only five district court challengers have prevailed in the last 13 judicial elections in Minnesota, although there were over 1,275 candidates. Since the state’s appeals court was established in 1984, no incumbent has ever lost a seat on that court. Since 1946, no justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court has failed to win reelection.
Even while incumbents have historically had an advantage, Kritzer noted that there are some situations when a challenger may stand a higher chance of winning.
According to Kritzer, “such obstacles usually occur in a few instances.” “First, determine whether the current judge has made a mistake of any kind.”
Kritzer described the defeat of G. Tony Atwal, a former Ramsey County Judge who lost an election after “(bringing) out the judge card” during a traffic check for drunk driving in St. Paul in 2018. Later, he confessed to the crime.
And third, occasionally a judge may decide not to run for re-election when there are only a few available seats, Kritzer added. “Second, is perhaps when the incumbent is a recent appointee and it’s the first time the judge is standing for election.”
As part of his campaign against Webber, Hanson expressed to Forum News Service his desire for more people to vie for judicial positions, noting that this would assist maintain the judiciary’s independence from gubernatorial selections.
“We must go back to Minnesota’s traditional system of electing judges through municipal elections if we want the court to be really independent. “[Judges] shall be chosen by the citizens from the territory which they are to serve in the manner authorized by law,” the Minnesota Constitution’s Article VI Section 7 states. Hanson remarked. “In my opinion, judges ought to be more approachable to those present outside the courtroom. To choose the judge they will vote for in the election, people should be allowed to meet and question their judges. It violates the people’s right to pick their government officials when judges run uncontested.
Kritzer, though, would completely alter the voting process for the court if he had his way.
“I would pick an appointment system that is significantly unlike from any state’s in the Union. Potential candidates would go through a very thorough evaluation procedure in a very professionalized nomination process, according to Kritzer. Other common law nations, including all of the United Kingdom’s states and, I think, certain Australian states, have a nominating body that reviews such evaluations and formally recommends an appointing authority. Then there is a framework in place that makes it difficult to disregard the advice of the nominating body.
But he went on to say that it’s improbable that a system like that would ever be successful in the United States.
We love elections too much in the United States, so I don’t think that’ll happen, Kritzer added. Even if relatively few individuals are willing to tackle the long number of offices we find on our ballots, we still adore elections.
For registered voters in Minnesota, early voting has already started. Until Election Day on November 8, those who have not yet registered may do so at the polls.