After losing election, judge sets defendants free

I turned my ballot over the other day and had the same immediate thought I’ve had in every election since I moved to a state that elects judges: “This is a charade.”

Other than the Minnesota Supreme Court race between a sitting justice and a wholly unqualified and potentially dangerous challenger that no intelligent student of the law believes is fit to serve on the bench; and an appeals court race, a dozen or more single entries for district court judgeships awaited.

In fact, most of the time I spent in the voting booth was spent filling in ovals in uncontested races. “Better than wasting my vote,” I thought, as I wasted my vote.

Nobody wants to challenge district court judges and we can only guess why. Lawyers don’t want to run against someone they they might have to later appear in front of on behalf of a defendant. Being a great judge pays less than being a mediocre attorney. The sitting judge is just too darned good to replace. Who knows?

It’s still a charade. We don’t really elect judges, for the most part because we’re not given a choice and even if we were, we don’t know anything about any of the people on the ballot.

It could be worse, of course. We could be Texas where people do run against each other for such an important position.

One of the lesser reported aspects of Ted Cruz’s victory in the U.S. Senate race is it brought Democrats to the polls who swept 59 Republican judges from office.

Two of them – Glen Devlin and John Philips – were responsible for one-fifth of all the juveniles sent to prison in 2017 in Texas, the Houston Chronicle found in an October investigation. Ninety-six percent of the kids were minorities.

They not only sent more teens to juvenile prison, the paper said, but the two judges also sent them younger and for less-serious offenses than the other juvenile court in the county.

During the campaign, the Republicans ran ads saying the Democrats running for the judiciary would be soft on crime.

So on Wednesday, juvenile after juvenile appeared before Devlin — who lost the election — and juvenile after juvenile was set free, the Chronicle said.

“Apparently he was saying that’s what the voters wanted,” public defender Steve Halpert said.

Some of those released were charged with misdemeanors; some were charged with violent crimes. It didn’t matter to the judge having his temper tantrum over losing an election.

“The voters of Harris County clearly wanted a change in the juvenile courts and Judge Devlin today is showing us why the voters may have wanted change,” said Jay Jenkins, a policy attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “We’re hoping now the juvenile courts can be a much fairer and more equitable place.”

I don’t have the answer to Minnesota’s charade. Nor can I say the experience in Texas is an affirmation or a condemnation of the electoral process for jurors. After all, given the opportunity, voters got rid of some bad judges, apparently. But how did they get on the bench in the first place?

That’s not to say, of course, that judges in Minnesota running unopposed are bad — or good — judges. It’s to say that in a state that elects judges, a lone choice for jurists does not a true election make.

  • BJ

    In massive understatement Jay Jenkins said “Judge Devlin today is showing us why the voters may have wanted change.”

  • davidz

    I’m torn on judicial election. I like the notion of being able to call out specific judges for their actions — better than a lifetime appointment with only impeachment as the check and balance. But the notion of other individuals running to replace the sitting judge doesn’t seem right either.

    I’d like to see the judicial elections posted as “Shall District Judge Jane Kobota retain her seat?” If the majority of ballots indicating a preference in this race is no, then the governor shall appoint a new person to fill that seat.

    No one would run for a judicial seat, but the people would still have the ability to recall a judge that goes beyond the community norms.

    If there isn’t sufficient reason for someone to know what that judge is doing, then I’d say that’s an indication that the judge’s actions are within those norms.

    • Good points. I’m reminded about what happened in Iowa with the Supreme Court there. Can we really trust the people to make good decisions where the law is concerned? I’m not convinced yet. So maybe it’s just as well that Minnesota judges run unopposed.

      • davidz

        If it’s a race between people, then I’d say the answer is no (witness Michelle MacDonald getting 43% of the vote). When it comes to a recall referendum on a specific person, I’d also generally say no, which is why my scheme would depend only on people who actually filled in that particular race.

        I’m thinking of cases like Aaron Persky (in the Brock Turner rape case with the minimal sentence). He was recalled earlier this year — the first in over 80 years in Santa Clara. It’s not a power to be taken lightly, but not to be taken often either.

        • Al

          I remember reading MacDonald’s bar questionnaire, and thinking, “well, she sounds sort of whackadoo, but maybe I just don’t understand the whole story or how the judiciary works.” All three of which are likely partially true.

          • Ickster

            MacDonald and Tim Tingelstad are a couple of perennial loonies that show up in Supreme Court races. I’m always terrified that an uniformed electorate may some day elect one of them without knowing what they’re doing.

          • jon

            I’d like to see a “previous offices ran for” available to voters…

            Because we have a few perennial candidates that keep showing up in my district, always for non-partisan races, and it seems like always with the hope that they’ll get elected with no qualifications… I don’t know why they want to be elected as dog catcher/city council member/judge/school board/etc. but they seem to be willing to take any office that some one will vote them into, and just being able to see that a candidate has been doing that would be nice.

          • Who was the guy who campaigned wearing a cow outfit a decade or so ago?

          • Barton

            I am more worried of the informed electorate voting for them, as I have a few acquaintances who knowingly and willingly voted for MacDonald because of who she was running against (& for the same reason she stated she was running against the judge).

    • Ickster

      I’ve thought the same thing, but I’d probably suggest setting the bar at something like 60% to hopefully prevent purely partisan ‘recalls’.

      • davidz

        Not a bad idea. Or require that any vote to recall have at least some minimum number of participants. We don’t want to have everybody leave it blank except one vote to recall, and have that one vote be the decider.

        I would like to the bar to be high but achievable. I believe there needs to be an accountability to the electorate.

        • Ickster

          It practically feels like we’re legislating here 🙂

          • davidz

            I’d take a legislature run by the NewsCut denizens any day. I don’t agree with all of them, but they make it easy to recognize their humanity and treat them with respect.

  • Al

    As contentious as the midterms were this year, THIS is the issue that kept coming up in nearly every election conversation–at work, at church, with friends, with family. Literally every single conversation, we all expressed our frustration with our inability to find any halfway decent information on the judicial races, much less the unopposed races (if you can call that a race). Until MPR published their review this past weekend, we were really SOL.

    And we’re fairly highly educated folks, who understand how to do research, speak English fluently, and have reliable internet access. If WE can’t find information, where does that leave everyone else who isn’t nearly as privileged?

    • jon

      MN judges:
      https://www.mnbar.org/docs/default-source/default-document-library/margaret-chutich.pdf?sfvrsn=0
      Ramsey county judges (not as good as the MN bar questions):
      https://www.ramseybar.org/judicialcandidates/
      both are only for contested seats…

      • Al

        Yup, that’s where I did my research. Really minimally helpful. (ETA: The sources were minimally helpful. Comments here are almost always helpful.)

    • crystals

      Do you already read Naomi Kritzer’s blog? She’s been one of the best sources of information for me on judicial races. (And yes, I realize it’s totally bonkers that the best source of information is a woman who does this out of the goodness of her heart on her personal blog.)

      Here’s her ballot roundup (https://naomikritzer.com/2018/10/31/election-2018-ballot-roundup/) where you can click on each race to read her analysis, and here’s a general musing on judicial races (https://naomikritzer.com/2018/10/30/musings-on-judicial-races/).

      • Al

        I do, in fact, read Kritzer’s blog. I’m not in Ramsey/Hennepin, though, so her analysis is, like, halfway helpful for me.

        • crystals

          It really is unreal how little high quality information exists. I was talking with someone while doorknocking last weekend who asked whether there is an *impartial* site where they can read about all of the candidates in one place. Sadly, I didn’t have a good answer for her.

      • davidz

        Those general musing are a very good read!

  • Ben Chorn

    Being informed about judges is half the battle. I did a mail in ballot so I could research. I found a good handful that shouldn’t be retained. Only one wasn’t and it was the first time in decades (Chicago)

    https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-met-judge-not-retained-cook-county-20181107-story.html

  • Guest

    some were charged with violent crimes. It didn’t matter to the judge = = = CAN these be appealed by the state?

    • They still have court dates ahead.

    • chlost

      From what I can see, these are Conditions of Release. Generally in Minnesota, the Court would at the very least order a juvenile to remain law abiding, have no same or similar offenses, and to maintain contact with a probation agent. If they violate those conditions, their release can be revoked and held in custody throughout the proceedings.

  • lindblomeagles

    Likewise, I am troubled by electing judges whom I know extremely little about. And yet, I’m reminded of the shenanigans our U.S. Senate engaged in for two years: the Merrick Garland nomination process, and the two biased clown confirmations, aka Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. I guess the one benefit from our increasingly suspect judicial process is elected judges do have term limits if and when we, the voters, decide to get rid of them. But, we ought to be able to select judges based on something other than political affiliation. The law affects people lives! Politics is a changing, shifting thing better left to the Legislature and the people we vote into that body.

  • king harvest

    The judge didn’t show up for work on Thursday. Didn’t call either.
    What a stand up guy