This year is somewhat odd in terms of district court judicial elections. Typically, district court judges run for election without challenge. Prior to this year, the last contested district court judicial election in the Third Judicial District was in 2008. The Third Judicial District encompasses the following counties: Olmsted, Dodge, Fillmore, Winona, Wabasha, Steele, Rice, Freeborn, Houston, Waseca, and Mower.
While contested judicial elections are rare in Southeast Minnesota, this year is an outlier, as there are five contested elections in the Third Judicial District: two challenges in Olmsted County, one challenge in Wabasha County, one challenge in Houston County, and one challenge in Mower County. Given that there are contested elections this year, many people have asked how judicial elections work.
The process is relatively straightforward. When a district court judge vacates his or her seat, the governor has the responsibility of appointing a successor to that seat. The same is true for judges at the Minnesota Court of Appeals as well as justices at the Minnesota Supreme Court. While appellate judges may be appointed by the governor at will, the same is not true for district court judges. Before the governor appoints a district court judge, the Minnesota Commission on Judicial Selection has the responsibility of recruiting and recommending judges to the governor for appointment.
The Commission on Judicial Selection consists of forty-nine members statewide. This group includes attorney and non-attorney members. Of the forty-nine members, nine are at-large members and forty represent specific judicial districts. There are ten judicial districts in Minnesota, meaning four members represent a specific judicial district. The Commission reviews applications, conducts interviews, and ultimately recommends applicants to the governor to consider for appointment.
Once appointed, the judge is required to stand for election in the general election that occurs one year after his or her appointment. The judge runs for re-election every six years thereafter. Anyone who is "learned of the law" and under the age of seventy may run against the appointed judge. If there is more than one challenger, state law requires a primary whereby the top two vote-getters run in the general election. In a primary or general election, an incumbent is designated as an incumbent on the ballot.
Of the five races this year, two included a primary. Those races include the seats in Wabasha County and Houston County. In both races, the incumbent won.
Voting for judges in contested elections is important, particularly at the district court level. These judges interact with the local community on a daily basis. If you have questions about qualifications or fitness to serve, most judges running in the contested elections this year have websites where you can learn more about them. For more information, click here.