It's the night before Election Day and Kathleen Mottl is trolling for votes. During rush hour. In the pouring rain. She makes her way from door to door in a south Minneapolis neighborhood just east of Edina, armed with campaign brochures and protected only by a patriotic red, white, and blue umbrella.
"Hi, I'm Kathleen Mottl," she begins on each doorstep. "I'm running for Hennepin County District Court judge. Most people say they don't know enough about judicial candidates, so we're trying to change that, one person at a time."
Most residents look a little bewildered, taking a brochure without offering much response. One woman promises to vote for Mottl because of her involvement with mock-trial programs in area high schools. Another man attempts to engage Mottl in a discussion of what he sees as the Draconian laws governing dogs and guns, but she politely begs off; state law prohibits judicial candidates from discussing volatile issues.
The Wright County prosecutor and neophyte campaigner has learned several important political rules of thumb during her weeks on the hustings: Don't tread on residents' lawns. Don't go door-knocking during Vikings games. And don't ring the doorbell if you can see someone inside talking on the phone.
In her bid to unseat Hennepin County District Court Judge Patricia Kerr Karasov, Mottl is doing more than knocking on doors. She has amassed a war chest of almost $30,000--though most of that came via a $25,000 bank loan. The money paid for numerous newspaper ads, brochures distributed in the Southwest Journal, and even yard signs--a rarity among local judicial candidates. But her effort is the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of judicial races in Minnesota, particularly at the district court level, are either uncontested or barely contested. This year only 5 of 67 district court judges faced opposition. What's more, despite the electoral system, 90 percent of the members of the Minnesota bench got there via gubernatorial appointment, when vacancies opened up in between elections.
In other words, Mottl is swimming against a pretty strong current. Voters typically walk into the booth knowing virtually nothing about judicial candidates. According to a Minnesota State Bar Association survey of Hennepin County voters in 1996, only a week after that year's supreme court race nearly half the respondents could not remember whom they'd voted for. Incumbents, who are clearly identified as such on the ballot, almost never lose.
"It's hard enough to get people to look seriously enough at the two presidential candidates, or the two U.S. Senate candidates," says Carl Cummins, a St. Paul attorney who served as lead legal counsel to Gov. Al Quie beginning in the late 1970s. "The further you go down the election ballot, the less informed people are likely to be. And judges are kind of at the bottom of the ballot."
The historically yawn-inducing issue of judicial elections was pushed to the fore this year by the Minnesota Republican Party's controversial decision to begin endorsing candidates for judgeships. Perennial state supreme court contestant Greg Carlson Wersal brought the matter into the spotlight by filing lawsuits contending that his free-speech rights are curtailed by laws that prohibit judicial candidates from touting those very endorsements, and from speaking freely about issues that might come before them on the bench.
"It's kind of a sham," agrees Seth Andersen, director of the Hunter Center for Judicial Selection at the American Judicature Society, a Chicago-based nonprofit group that advocates for judicial-selection reform. "All, really, that judges can say is, 'I will be fair and impartial, here's my track record, and I have a very good reputation.'"
Minnetonka Republican Rep. Ron Abrams believes he has a solution. During the upcoming legislative session, Abrams intends to propose a constitutional amendment to adopt the so-called Missouri Plan. Named for the state that first instituted it, the Missouri Plan does away with "contested" elections: All judges are initially appointed, typically in a process that involves a nominating committee. Every four to twelve years (depending upon the state), voters decide whether to keep incumbents on the job. If a judge fails to garner the approval of a majority of voters, a replacement is appointed. Since 1940, when Missouri implemented its system, fifteen other states have enacted their own version; another two have adopted systems in which judges are initially voted onto the bench in contested elections, then retained or dropped via referendums. No state that has modeled a plan after Missouri's has ever reverted to contested elections.
Beyond his concern over the introduction of partisan politics into judicial elections, Abrams worries about the growing influence of money on campaigns nationwide. In a handful of states this year (notably Ohio, Michigan, and Alabama), races for judgeships became magnets for millions of dollars in political advertising from special-interest groups, such as chambers of commerce and labor unions. Although Minnesota has so far escaped such spending sprees, the cost of judicial campaigns here has become significant. As of October 23, according to filings with the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, Minnesota Supreme Court Justice James Gilbert's campaign had raised more than $170,000 in his effort to stave off Wersal, while benchmate Kathleen Blatz took in $126,000 to thwart opponent Burton Hanson. (Both Gilbert and Blatz won their races by decisive margins.) As with most judicial campaigns, many of the donations came from trial lawyers who might potentially argue cases in front of those very justices.