The Friends of Alan Page

John Derus, still smarting from his 1996 primary defeat and his misplaced election-day photo in the Star Tribune, claims state Supreme Court Justice Alan Page's ties to the Strib biased the outcome of Derus's case against the paper.

For years, state Supreme Court justices have been first appointed by the governor and later run for re-election. Because the Legislature set the system up to protect incumbents and discourage challengers, those re-election races have rarely been truly competitive. In fact, before Page defeated Minneapolis attorney Kevin Johnson for Justice Yetka's seat in 1992, there hadn't been a head-to-head election for an open seat in more than 25 years.

That same year, three incumbent Supreme Court justices also faced serious challenges, for the first time requiring justices to raise unprecedented campaign war chests. The justices' campaign committees solicited much of their funding from Minnesota attorneys, who for the first time questioned the provision of the ethical canon that says the way for elected judges to remain impartial is for others to do their fundraising for them. Similarly, the ethical canon encourages justices to be involved in their communities, specifically mentioning philanthropy as an appropriate avenue, yet bars them from capitalizing on their prestige and from allowing their outside activities to jeopardize their independence.

"The idea is that anyone who comes into our courts should be treated the same no matter who they are or where they came from," explains Hamline law professor Marie Failinger. "Even if there is no technical conflict, judges have to be sensitive to the public's perceptions."

Page had three separate potential conflicts in Derus's case. Whether any of them troubled the Board of Judicial Standards, or was even discussed at its April 18 meeting with Page, is likely to remain a mystery. In a letter to Derus, Willette explained the board's rationale for overlooking each of Page's three ties to the Strib in only general terms: Cowles's contributions to the Page Educational Foundation didn't constitute a large enough percentage of the charity's budget to make the justice beholden; David Cox attended just one of the foundation's five most recent advisory board meetings; and Page's wife's professional contacts were her own business, Willette wrote.

"You raised the matter of Diana Sims Page's employment as an independent market research consultant for the Star Tribune from 1992 to 1995 when the paper was redesigning its format," the letter concluded. "The board finds that Ms. Page's employment is a matter of her choice and self-interest, completely unrelated to her husband's judicial responsibilities or your case.

"On April 17, 1997, you informed the board members individually that the executive secretary of the Board is married to a business editor at the Star Tribune. The employment of the executive secretary's spouse is irrelevant to your complaint." Page declined City Pages' request to make the secret proceedings public, leaving unanswered the question of what kind of appearance of conflict would compel a justice to remove him or herself from consideration of a case.

It may be that the Page Education Foundation's laudable goals and Alan Page's position in the community are the very reasons John Derus--himself more an outsider every day--can't seem to get any action. His only remaining avenue for relief is the Legislature, which heard testimony in the matter last January and is unlikely to unseat Higgins because she played no role in any alleged election fraud. Whether Derus ever succeeds in winning a new shot at the North Side Senate seat, it appears that questions about Page's potential conflicts of interest will go unanswered. But the issue of judges' electoral and personal financial interests will only crop up more frequently in coming years.

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