My jazz group played for a judge’s retirement party here in Minnesota. Of course, we loved playing and it was a great party–if you like big groups of judges and lawyers!!
To understand, it’s important to remember that, at the state level, most judges are elected in county-wide races. In Minnesota, they run for a six-year term and must be re-elected to continue to serve. Technically, it’s a wide-open race although most judges never have an opponent. Which means if their spouse votes for them, they’re elected. That’s another issue and I may blog about it at some time in the future.
Let’s get back to retirement. In reality, most judges in Minnesota are initially appointed by the governor. There’s a state panel of volunteers who vet the various candidates and send a handful to the governor for consideration. Luckily in our state, this process is minimally political–that is a Republican governor may appoint a “Democratic” lawyer to the bench. Most governors, in my experience, have tried to appoint the best quality of people to judgeship.
However, every governor may use the process as a way of “thanking” his constituents and paying-back favors from certain groups or people. Which will lead us to retirements…
Usually, a judge will retire at the end of his/her six-year term. That means the spot becomes an open seat that anyone can run for in the next election, held in November. If a judge retires prior to that time, the seat will be available for a new appointment by the governor in order to fill-out the remainder of the term. If the retiring judge thinks favorably about the governor, the judge may purposely retire before the end of his term, giving the governor a chance to appointment someone. Even if the remaining time in the term of the previous judge is short, as I just pointed out, during an election a sitting judge is rarely challenged.
That enables the retiring judge to make a strategic decision about when he’s going to retire–giving his favorite governor a chance to fill the spot with a friendly replacement rather than opening the seat to a general election.
For us in the public, as consumers of the justice system, our hope is that the governor will rise above politics and appoint someone of good quality. Who knows??