Supreme Court candidates respond to questionnaire

The Minnesota Newspaper Association distributes a survey every two years, asking for feedback from candidates for congressional and judicial offices. The results are then distributed for publication to approximately 350 newspapers throughout the state.

This year, the chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court and two associate justices face opposition. Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea is being challenged by Dan Griffith. For associate justice, Seat 1, incumbent Barry Anderson is being challenged by Dean Barkley. For associate justice, Seat 4, incumbent David Stras is being challenged by Tim Tingelstad. Barkley and Tingelstad did not respond to the questionnaire.

Morrison County is in the 7th Judicial District, and none of the district court judges up for election face opposition this year.

Below are the responses from the Supreme Court candidates to the following questions:

1. Briefly summarize your personal background and qualifications. 

2. The judicial system is facing increasing cost pressures. Other than more money, what steps can be taken to increase efficiency in the courts and still afford individuals due process under the law?

3. Do you support the judicial retention election system as recommended by the Quie Commission?

4. Do you intend to seek endorsement and/or financial contributions from political parties and other special-interest groups? If so, which organizations/individuals have endorsed you?

5. Why are you running for office? What are your personal priorities?

Chief Justice

Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea

1. Gildea: I have served as Minnesota’s chief justice since July 1, 2010, and have been on the Minnesota Supreme Court since January 2006. The people of Minnesota elected me to the Court in November 2008. I served on the trial court prior to my appointment to the Minnesota Supreme Court, and I was appointed to the bench only after being vetted through the rigorous merit selection process before the Minnesota Judicial Selection Commission. Before becoming a judge, I was a courtroom lawyer for almost 20 years. From 1986 to 1993, I had a national trial and appellate practice as an associate at Arent Fox, one of the largest law firms in Washington, D.C. From 1993 to 2004, I was trial and appellate counsel for the University of Minnesota. I represented the University in courtrooms all around Minnesota and before the United States Supreme Court. I also served as a special prosecutor in the Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office, and from December 2004 through my appointment to the bench in September 2005, I was an assistant Hennepin County attorney. While in the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, I prosecuted white collar criminals and those who preyed on vulnerable adults.

Dan Griffith

Griffith: My wife Debbie and I have been married for 21 years, and we are raising four sons. I have practiced law for nearly 19 years, served our country in the military, and litigated hundreds of cases in court. I have worked as an assistant city attorney, assistant county attorney, adjunct professor and Judicare member for two legal aid services. In 2008, I was awarded the Legal Services Award, “In recognition of providing outstanding legal work making a difference for the disadvantaged.” I love my wife, our four boys and America. I go to church, ride a motorcycle, love Gopher wrestling, play drums in a band, go camping and hunting, watch movies at coffee shops with my sons, and collect old history books. But, none of these activities control how I would rule as a judge. I believe judges should listen to the facts, find the truth and apply the law, not rewrite it.

2. Gildea: Recent surveys show that Minnesota’s courts have the trust and confidence of the people. We have to work to maintain that trust as all in state government are asked to do more with less. During my two years as chief justice, I have overseen reforms that are making our courts more efficient. One of those reforms is eCourtMN, our effort to move the judiciary into the world of the electronic case record. The project will make us more effective and efficient for the people we serve. It will make it possible for judges, attorneys and staff to view documents electronically and simultaneously. Public case records will also be able to be viewed by members of the public electronically, without requiring access at the courthouse. I also appointed the Civil Justice Reform Task Force to recommend changes in how we process civil cases so that we can get these cases resolved more quickly and efficiently. The Task Force completed its work earlier this year and made many recommendations for streamlining court processes. Finally, I chair and convene the Criminal Justice Forum, which has as its mission identifying case-processing efficiencies for criminal cases.

Griffith: The first responsibility of the judicial branch is to safeguard our rights and freedoms. Founding father, Patrick Henry said, “The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government — lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.” As to efficiency, we need to do the same thing we do in our daily lives: Distinguish our needs from our wants and budget for our needs. Justice and fairness are needs.

3. Gildea: I appreciate very much the leadership of Gov. Quie and others in beginning and focusing the discussion with the people of Minnesota about the dangers of inserting political parties and other special interest groups into our judicial selection process. I have not endorsed any particular judicial selection model, because I believe that is a question the people themselves must decide. We need judges to be beholden to the law and the facts, not to political party platforms, and our judicial selection model should reflect that ideal.

Griffith: The retention election takes away the most important function of our vote by taking away the right to vote for someone. Under a retention election one politician appoints the entire judicial branch. How does that keep politics out of judicial selection?

Retention election gives the governor (and maybe an unelected committee) control over who is appointed. Even if we the people remove one of their appointees, they control the replacement. What have the people gained?

We already have the right to vote for our judges under Minnesota Constitution Article 6, Section 7. We do not need an amendment to make it weaker.

4. Gildea: No.

Griffith: I seek the endorsement of Minnesotans. I think we need to stop dividing ourselves into groups and instead come together on what we all believe—we want to be the land of the free and home of the brave. We are Americans for America. If a house divided against itself cannot stand, how can a state or country? When people ask me what party I am, I tell them I am an American. When I raised my hand to serve in the military I swore an oath to uphold the American Constitution from all enemies, both foreign and domestic. People from all kinds of backgrounds and political leanings support my candidacy because I support individual rights and judicial accountability.

5. Gildea: Your individual rights and family’s safety depend on an adequately funded and well-run court system, one that has your trust and confidence. When I took over as Chief Justice, Minnesota’s courts had suffered years of budget cuts, and case backlogs were building. I was successful in reversing that trend, and am leading reforms that are cutting backlogs and will reduce future costs. My record demonstrates that I am committed to preserving equal justice under law and the rule of law in guiding our society.

My record of service on the court demonstrates that I am a person of principle, someone who believes in the rule of law, understands the value of precedent, and believes that a judge should exercise her judgment, not impose her will. I am a clear and effective communicator. I am an innovative leader and a good manager. Based on my record, I have received public support from many leaders in the legal and academic communities, including endorsement by the people who best understand the challenges and work of the chief justice — Minnesota’s last four chief justices. My candidacy has also garnered wide, nonpartisan support and I have been endorsed by leaders in Minnesota’s three political parties.

Griffith: I was asked a while back what the difference between a judge and a politician was. I believe a judge’s job is to listen to the facts, find the truth, and apply the law, not rewrite it. When a judge rewrites the law they have become a politician. In Minnesota our Constitution states, “Judges shall be elected by the voters…” Art. 6, Sec. 7. That is because our framers believed that judges could become too powerful if they were also unaccountable to the people. Our framers also believed the people were capable of governing themselves and choosing their own leaders, including judges. Minnesota’s first chief justice said, “If the people are incapable of choosing their judges, they are also incapable of choosing the man who is to appoint the judges.”

I believe our freedom is threatened when we allow our government to grow too powerful, and the people to grow too weak. Our protection from that occurring is our Constitution. That is why we need judges who will apply it, not ignore it.

Associate Justice (Seat 1)

Associate Justice Barry Anderson

1. Anderson: I have 14 years of experience as a judge, beginning with the Court of Appeals in 1998 and then with the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2004. I was born in Mankato, graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College and the University of Minnesota Law School. I practiced law in Fairmont, St. Louis Park and Hutchinson for 20 years and am certified as a civil trial specialist. I have had the opportunity to provide leadership in a variety of ways during my judicial service and currently serve on the Minnesota Judicial Council, the policy setting body for the Minnesota Judicial Branch. My background in greater Minnesota and in the Twin Cities gives me valuable perspective. My wife is a former public school band director, and we have three adult children.

2. Anderson: The judicial branch has a number of initiatives under way to improve efficiency and reduce cost while maintaining or improving access to justice. Those projects include a centralized method for paying tickets, electronic filing of documents, sharing of administrative resources across county and judicial district lines, as well as targeting judicial resources on locations that need extra help. All of these developments have been or will be implemented, with 10 percent fewer employees than the judicial branch had just a few years ago. Minnesotans are proud, and rightly so, of the hard work and initiative of the employees who staff our courts around the state. While the results have been impressive, because over 80 percent of the judiciary budget pays for personnel costs, there is limited room to achieve substantial additional savings solely from efficiency improvements. Additional resources are going to be necessary.

3. Anderson: Yes. I am convinced that highly partisan, multi-million dollar judicial election campaigns, as have occurred elsewhere, are damaging to the credibility of our courts and retention elections have helped keep those problems at bay. While I support the Quie Commission recommendations, I am open to discussions about other ways to select and retain our judges; no system of judicial selection is free from flaws.

Finally, it is important to realize that this question is probably more appropriately aimed at the legislature, as any change in the system requires legislative rather than judicial action.

4. Anderson: I have consistently, and publicly, rejected political party endorsements in both of my two previous judicial election campaigns. I continue to adhere to that position. I have been endorsed by the Academy of Certified Trial Lawyers of Minnesota (ACTLM).

5. Anderson: I have served Minnesotans for 14 years as a judge, six years on the Court of Appeals and eight years on the Minnesota Supreme Court, and would like the opportunity to continue that service with another term on the Court. I am committed to a fair and impartial judiciary, and I’ve based my decisions on the law, not on partisanship or politics.

Associate Justice (Seat 4)

David Stras

1. Stras: I began my service as an associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court July 1, 2010. Before my appointment, I was a professor of law at the University of Minnesota for six years and served as counsel to the law firm of Faegre and Benson LLP (now Faegre Baker Daniels LLP), practicing appellate litigation. Before that, I practiced law in Washington, D.C., with the law firm of Sidley Austin Brown and Wood LLP (now Sidley Austin LLP). I have also served as a law clerk to three federal appellate judges, including a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. I currently live in Wayzata with my wife and two sons.

2. Stras: The court system must continue to innovate. Over the past several years, the Minnesota Supreme Court has led the judiciary in an effort to use technology to reduce costs. For example, a pilot project is under way to implement electronic filing of court documents, which, once implemented statewide, is expected to reduce the judiciary’s costs substantially. We must continue to explore all avenues of modernization and efficiency, large and small.

3. Stras: I take no position on the recommendations of the Quie Commission. Under the Minnesota Constitution, the decision about how to select judges is committed to the people and the Legislature, not to the judicial branch. The constitution’s separation of powers provides a reason for judges and judicial candidates to decline to comment about matters that are beyond the scope of the job.

4. Stras: I am not seeking endorsement or financial contributions from any political parties or special-interest groups. I believe the most important attribute for a judge is to faithfully interpret and apply the Constitution and laws passed by our elected representatives, without favor toward any political party, power broker, or special-interest group. Being a judge is not, and should not be, a political job.

However, I am proud to have received endorsements from a broad, bipartisan cross-section of more than 400 of Minnesota’s citizens and leaders, including eight former Justices of the Minnesota Supreme Court, all four deans of Minnesota’s law schools, two former governors, and eight former members of the United States Congress.

5. Stras: It has been my great privilege to serve the people of Minnesota in my current role as an associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. The job of a justice is a challenging one; it requires members of the court to consider and decide some of the most important legal issues facing Minnesota. Minnesota citizens deserve to have justices who have the integrity, experience and mature judgment to make these important decisions. I believe that my record over the past two years demonstrates that I am up to the challenge.

My top priority is to continue to promote the impartiality and independence of the judiciary. No matter who you are, I will consider your case and all cases without bias or partiality, to the very best of my ability, and decide them based on the law. If that is what you hope for in a judge, then it would be my honor to serve the people of Minnesota for an additional six years.