WDAY: The News Leader

Published September 28, 2010, 10:55 AM

MN Supreme Court Judge: Endorsements for justice campaigns need to stop

Fergus Falls, Minn. (WDAY TV) - The way judges get elected to Minnesota's highest court has changed. Candidates can now ask for money, and take endorsements. In the last 10 years, the amount of money going into state justice campaigns has more than doubled, now up to 207 million dollars. At least one judge in Fergus Falls today says it's a trend that's got to stop.

Visiting with Kiwanis members in Fergus Falls, Minnesota Supreme Court justice Chris Dietzen is also rubbing elbows with potential campaign financers. People have always been allowed to contribute to judicial campaigns, but it was to campaign committees, not the judges themselves, and judges never affiliated with a political party. A 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling changed all of that.

Based on the outcome of The Republican Party of Minnesota vs. White, judges can now openly share their personal beliefs on hot button issues, seek political party endorsement, and personally ask for campaign money.

Justice Dietzen: “Judges need to be fair and impartial.”

On the campaign trail himself, though with no opponent, Justice Dietzen says he turned down an endorsement from the Republican Party.

Justice Dietzen: “What kind of judge do you want? Do you want a judge that will decide a case based on the facts and the law or someone who is beholding to a political party?”

Steve Rufer/Attorney: “It's going to be in the back of everybody's mind.”

Fergus Falls Attorney Steve Rufer isn't sure if he would give money, but worries what will happen in court when he's faced with an opposing attorney who did. He's also concerned about the influence groups like big tobacco or pharmaceutical companies will have if they put their dollars behind judges.

Steve Rufer/Attorney: “I think it's terrible”

For his campaign, Dietzen is asking people for something: to spread the word Minnesota justice may be changing. Greg Wersal, who is also running for the Minnesota Supreme Court, but not against Dietzen, disagrees. He says campaign changes are a "major victory" that will help "hold judges accountable through free, open and competitive elections."