Judgment Call

A former judge accuses retiring Supreme Court Chief Justice Russell Anderson of playing politics

When Russell Anderson announced last month that he'd be stepping down in June as chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, the reviews of his two-year tenure were glowing.

"We have appreciated his wise leadership of the court and his insistence on the impartiality of the judiciary," editorialized the Pioneer Press.

The Star Tribune was no less effusive. "Russell Anderson's relatively brief tenure as Minnesota's chief justice belies the lasting impact he'll have on Minnesota courts and those who seek justice in them," the newspaper's editorial board cheered.

Chief Justice Russell Anderson will retire in June
the State Court Information Office
Chief Justice Russell Anderson will retire in June
Retired Judge Terrance Holter blames the chief justice, in part, for his ouster from the bench
Paul Demko
Retired Judge Terrance Holter blames the chief justice, in part, for his ouster from the bench

Gov. Tim Pawlenty hailed Anderson as an "extraordinary leader and public servant."

In particular, the 65-year-old chief justice was applauded for his efforts to keep partisan politics and special interest money out of judicial races. "Nobody wants somebody calling balls and strikes before the pitch is thrown," Anderson has been quoted more than once as saying.

But up in Anderson's hometown of Bemidji, Terrance Holter experienced a very different reaction to the news. He wondered if his strange, two-year odyssey through judicial politics might have something do with Anderson's retirement plans.

Holter and Anderson have known each other for most of their lives. They both grew up around Bemidji, the northern Minnesota town of 12,000 that's best known for its statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Holter was two years behind Anderson at Bemidji High School.

After graduation, their lives continued to converge. Both eventually established law practices in the Bemidji area, with Anderson advancing to become the county attorney. Each was tapped in the early 1980s by Gov. Al Quie to serve as a judge in the Ninth Judicial District.

But Holter's tenure as a judge came to an abrupt end two years ago when he was defeated at the polls, and he blames his judicial exile in large part on meddling by the chief justice.

"This has been such a kick in the teeth all the way around," says Holter. "I wouldn't try to pretend I'm not angry about the whole thing."

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ON THE LAST DAY of candidate filing in July 2006, Judge Terrance Holter was on vacation. The 26-year veteran of the bench spent the afternoon visiting relatives. He figured he had little to worry about. After all, he hadn't faced electoral opposition since the end of his first term on the bench more than two decades earlier. Even then, Holter's opponent was a perennial gadfly who posed little threat at the polls.

But that July evening, the veteran jurist received some surprising news via a phone call from a fellow Ninth Judicial District judge. Not only would Holter face opposition in the fall elections, but two different candidates had filed to run against him.

One was Tim Tingelstad, a conservative Christian who wanted to bring religion into the courtroom.

But the real shocker was Holter's other opponent: John Melbye. For the previous four years, Melbye had served as Holter's law clerk. They'd had an amicable relationship, partnering up on the golf course and exchanging presents at Christmas.

Unbeknownst to Holter, Melbye had resigned via letter and cleaned out his office over the weekend.

"I couldn't believe it," Holter says. "I thought, What a snake." (Melbye declined to comment.)

Holter quickly realized that he had no clue how to run a political campaign. And the Ninth Judicial District presents a particularly bewildering electoral landscape, stretching over 17 counties from International Falls on the Canadian border to Brainerd in the center of the state. Although Holter could preside over cases in any of the 17 counties, more than 90 percent of his work was in the Beltrami County Courthouse in Bemidji. "There are many counties in the district that I've never set foot in as a judge," he says.

When Holter returned to his office a couple of days later, he found a phone message from local attorney Rebecca Anderson. She wanted to help with his campaign. At the time, this seemed like a fortuitous development. Not only did Anderson have strong ties in the legal community throughout much of the Ninth Judicial District, she also happened to be the daughter of the chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, Russell Anderson. In fact, Holter says, Rebecca Anderson told him that she was calling at her father's behest.

"She said, 'My dad called me last night and said you've got to help Terry,'" Holter recalls. "I thought that's great. You've got the Supreme Court chief's daughter. She says she knows how to run a campaign."

Rebecca Anderson immediately signed on to be the co-chair of Holter's campaign. But as Holter describes it, her stewardship of the re-election effort was a disaster from the outset. She never made good on promises to deliver endorsement letters from prominent local citizens. She also failed to set up appearances at church suppers and county fairs where Holter could hobnob with constituents.

Meanwhile Melbye was running an extremely vigorous campaign. The son-in-law of cable magnates, Melbye spent roughly $25,000 of his own money, ensuring that this would be among the most heavily funded campaign in the history of the Ninth Judicial District.

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