Judgment Call

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

"I had never seen a judicial campaign like this before," says Carl Drahos, a veteran Bemidji attorney. "I just hadn't seen that kind of campaign money flowing in my life."

Owing to the size of the district, and the low level of interest in judicial races, money has the potential to play an outsized role in election outcomes. "I don't want to say it's unfair, but I think it's a risk of the result being more a fact of exposure and spending money to campaign as opposed to strictly the qualifications," says Jon Maturi, chief judge of the Ninth Judicial District.

At the time of the 2006 race, most of the media's attention was focused on Tingelstad's candidacy. In the wake of an appeals court ruling striking down restrictions on partisanship in judicial campaigns, Tingelstad received the endorsement of the GOP, making him the state's first judicial candidate to have party backing. He also ran a campaign that promised to bring religion into the courtroom. His electoral slogan: "Justice is served when judges fear God and love the people."

Judge John Melbye won a 2006 judicial electiondespite never having tried a case in court
Monte Draper
Judge John Melbye won a 2006 judicial electiondespite never having tried a case in court

But voters in northwest Minnesota showed considerably less interest in Tingelstad. Holter and Melbye each garnered 39 percent of the vote in the primary election, with Tingelstad a distant third.

The results didn't exactly bode well for the incumbent judge. Despite more than two decades on the bench and an opponent who had never tried a case in a courtroom, the race was a dead heat.

The Holter campaign redoubled its efforts, enlisting prominent attorneys to write letters to the editor making the case for his re-election. "You can learn a lot during a clerkship, but not enough to take the seat you've served," wrote local lawyer Eric Shieferdecker. "Judges should be cut from stronger, more mature timber."

But Rebecca Anderson failed to deliver the letter to the newspaper as promised, Holter claims. She also assured him that Polk County would be friendly territory, given that she'd attended high school in the area while her dad served as a district court judge. But Holter says she failed to set up a single campaign event in the area.

Although Holter feared that her failure to follow through on such promises might cost him the campaign, he hesitated to confront her about the problems. After all, he didn't want to offend the daughter of the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

On election night Holter went to the movies to distract himself from the pending results. Around 10 p.m., he and his wife began tracking the tabulation online. From the outset, Melbye maintained a small lead. By about 1 a.m., it was clear Melbye would narrowly win the bench. He ultimately garnered 51 percent of the ballots, besting the incumbent by roughly 1,500 votes.

Holter lost the election despite the fact that he carried his home turf—Beltrami County, where he'd tried the overwhelming majority of his cases over the prior 26 years—by a robust 62-38 margin. He also won neighboring Hubbard and Clearwater counties, where he'd occasionally worked over the years.

Holter blames the loss in part on Rebecca Anderson's failures as a campaign co-chair. "She didn't do anything," the judge says.

But Rebecca Anderson, who has since relocated to the Twin Cities, disputes Holter's characterization of her efforts. She points out that she was merely a volunteer trying to assist the campaign. "I felt horrible," she says of the election defeat. "My whole intent behind it was just to help Judge Holter."

She also denies that her father asked her to get involved with the campaign. "I had told my dad that I was going to offer to help," she says. "I heard rumors about this, but no, my dad wasn't behind it. It was my decision."

Russell Anderson declined to be interviewed for this article. But in a statement released to City Pages, a Supreme Court spokesman denied that Anderson asked his daughter to help Holter's campaign. "She was a lawyer practicing in the same town as the judge and offered without any prompting by the chief justice to help the judge gain reelection."

• • • • • 

SEVERAL WEEKS AFTER the disappointing election loss, Holter received a phone call from John Smith, then chief judge of the Ninth Judicial District. Smith suggested that Holter retire before his term expired at the end of the year—that way Holter could sign up to serve as a retired judge and fill in for jurists who were on vacation or medical leave.

So just before Christmas, Holter turned in his resignation and filled out an application to serve as a retired judge. Because he'd lost the election, Holter would need special approval from the Minnesota Supreme Court, specifically Chief Justice Russell Anderson. No problem, Holter thought.

But a couple of weeks later, Holter got word that Anderson wanted to sit on the application for six months while things "cool down."

"It baffled me," Holter recalls. "There wasn't anything to cool down."

In March, Holter got another call from Smith, who was hoping Holter would be able to fill in for him during an upcoming absence. Smith called Anderson to press him on Holter's pending application, but the chief justice didn't budge.

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