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Over 100 Minnesota judges are up for election. Only one race is contested

Only five challengers have defeated incumbents for seats in Minnesota's district courts in the past 13 elections, but one Scott County attorney believes he can become the sixth.

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Prior Lake attorney Matthew Hanson, left, is challenging Judge Charles Webber, right, for a seat on the Minnesota's First Judicial District, the only contested judiciary race in the 2022 election cycle.
Photo illustration / Contributed photos
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SHAKOPEE, Minn. — With one-third of Minnesota’s 320 judges up for election this November, all but one race is already decided — a district judgeship in the southwest metro.

Minnesota’s First Judicial District — made up of Carver, Dakota, Goodhue, Le Sueur, McLeod, Scott and Sibley counties — will be home to the state’s only election for a seat on a district court’s bench, after Prior Lake attorney Matthew Hanson opted to challenge incumbent Charles Webber.

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Minnesota's First Judicial District sits to the southwest of downtown Minneapolis, and is made up of Carver, Dakota, Goodhue, Le Sueur, McLeod, Scott and Sibley counties.
Map courtesy of the Minnesota Judicial Branch

Webber, a Twin Cities native who now resides in Lakeville, is running his campaign on experience. After tallying roughly three decades of practicing law in Minnesota, Webber in April 2021 was appointed by Gov. Tim Walz to serve as a district court judge following the retirement of Rex Stacey.

“If it were my life, my freedom, or my family on the line, I would want a judge with experience who would be respectful to me, listen to me, consider all of the evidence, and make a fair decision based on the law,” Webber’s biography reads on his campaign website. “... I love being a judge and would love to continue serving my fellow citizens of the First Judicial District and the State of Minnesota.”

Hanson, a fifth-generation resident of Scott County who graduated from then-William Mitchell and passed the bar in 2018, is running on the idea of bringing a fresh perspective to the judiciary, noting he holds a dedication to justice, impartiality, and equality under the law for all people.

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“I am the local choice. … Before law school, I worked the line at a factory in Le Sueur County and did carpentry work in Carver County. I archery deer hunted the bluffs of Goodhue County. I fished, skied, and swam the lakes of Scott County. I hiked the Minnesota river banks in Sibley County. Growing up I worked at a restaurant in Dakota County. My great-great-grandfather was a farmer who settled in McLeod County,” Hanson told Forum News Service. “My hope is that Minnesotans in the First Judicial District will exercise their duty as outlined by the Minnesota Constitution and elect a local judge from the district where they live.”

The winner will serve a term of six years alongside five other judges in Scott County as well as part of the team of 36 judges in the First Judicial Circuit.

Challenging incumbents historically an uphill battle

While each election is in itself unique, historical races in Minnesota’s judiciary rarely result in a challenger defeating an incumbent.

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Dr. Herbert Kritzer, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota Law School

With 13 books and over 130 journal articles published — nearly all of which explore the legal and judicial realms in some fashion — Dr. Herbert Kritzer, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota Law School, has spent much of his life studying political science and, more specifically, judicial selection in the United States.

As part of his research, Kritzer conducted a historical analysis of judicial elections in Minnesota. He said that in a typical election, between four and nine judicial races are contested. While having only one contest is rare, it’s not unheard of — and for good reason.

“Who is running to unseat an incumbent judge? It’s a lawyer, probably. If they lose to the incumbent judge, then they’ll have to go in and appear before the incumbent judge,” Kritzer said. “I’ve looked at issues related to recusal … and found a very, very small number of cases in which a lawyer sought to have an assigned judge recused because the lawyer had opposed the judge in an election in which the recusal did not happen. It’s a big disincentive.”

Beyond the potential awkwardness of appearing before an opponent, Kritzer pointed out the rarity of incumbents losing in Minnesota.

In the past 13 Minnesota judicial elections, with over 1,275 candidates, only five district court challengers have won, while no incumbent of the state’s appeals court has ever lost since its inception in 1984. A Minnesota Supreme Court justice hasn’t lost a re-election bid since 1946.

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Though history surely favors incumbents, Kritzer pointed out there are instances where a challenger may have a better shot at defeating a seat-holder.

“Those challenges tend to happen in a few circumstances,” Kritzer said. “First, is if the incumbent judge has screwed up in some way.”

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Gurdip Singh Atwal lost a 2018 reelection bid to the the Ramsey County District Court after being charged with driving while intoxicated in a New Year's Day 2018 traffic stop in St. Paul.<br/>
Mugshot / Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office

Kritzer outlined the loss of former Ramsey County Judge G. Tony Atwal , who lost an election after “[pulling] out the judge card” during a 2018 St. Paul traffic stop for driving while intoxicated. He later pleaded guilty to the charge.

“Second, is potentially when the incumbent is a recent appointee and it’s the first time that judge is standing for election,” Kritzer continued, “and third, when there’s a very small number of open seats, occasionally a judge will choose not to run for re-election.”

As part of his campaign against Webber, Hanson told Forum News Service that he wishes more candidates would run for seats within the judiciary, adding that more options would help keep the courts more independent from gubernatorial appointments.

“If the judiciary in Minnesota is to remain truly independent, then we must return to the primary method of selecting judges in Minnesota: local elections by the people. The Minnesota Constitution Article VI Section 7 dictates that, ‘[Judges] shall be elected by the voters from the area which they are to serve in the manner provided by law.’” Hanson said. “I believe judges should be more accessible to the people outside of the courtroom. People should be able to meet and ask their judges questions to make informed decisions about which judge they vote for in the election. When judges run unopposed, it takes away the people's right to choose their civil servants.”

However, if Kritzer had it his way, he’d change the judiciary’s electoral system entirely.

“I would choose an appointment system very different from what exists in any state in the United States. It would involve a highly professionalized nomination process, where potential candidates are very rigorously assessed,” Kritzer said. “There are other common law countries — all components of the U.K. and I believe in some of the Australian states — that have a nominating body which goes through those assessments and formally makes a recommendation to an appointing authority. Then there’s a structure in place where there’s a disincentive not to follow the nominating body’s recommendations.”

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He added, however, that it’s unlikely such a system would ever succeed in the United States.

“I don’t think that’ll happen in the U.S. — we like elections too much,” Kritzer said. “We’re in love with elections even though, very seldom, are people willing to do the work to handle the laundry list of offices we find on our ballots.”

Early voting is already underway in Minnesota for registered voters. Those who have yet to register can do so at the polls through Election Day on Nov. 8.

A South Dakota native, Hunter joined Forum Communications Company as a reporter for the Mitchell (S.D.) Republic in June 2021. After over a year in Mitchell, he moved to Milwaukee, where he now works as a digital reporter for Forum News Service, focusing on regional news that impacts the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
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