Saturday, August 27, 2005

Judicial Activism

Greg Wersal: poster boy for judicial activism
seeks GOP endorse-

GOP: Hey look! Activist judges! Where? The GOP

(AP) Attorney Greg Wersal talks about restrictions on state judicial campaign speeches, in a courtroom...
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Aug 27, 6:42 AM (ET)


MINNETONKA, Minn. (AP) - When Greg Wersal last ran for Minnesota's Supreme Court, he toted plywood cows from town to town, dragged around an oversized ball and chain and adopted his wife's Scandinavian name for political advantage.

For Wersal, the gimmicks served two purposes: They got him noticed and they highlighted campaign rules that he says give voters little to go on during judicial elections.

"My hands were so tied," Wersal said of his campaign. "You are left with silly things. You are left with the gimmicks."

Wersal filed a lawsuit to change those rules. On Tuesday, a federal appeals court sided with him, saying judicial candidates may attend political conventions, seek party endorsements and personally solicit money, all of which are currently forbidden in Minnesota.

The state has three months to appeal the ruling, which also applies in seven other states from Arkansas to North Dakota.

Still, many remain opposed to the politicization of judicial offices.

"You will turn these judicial contests into partisan contests with big money and special interests," said George Soule, who formerly headed the state's judicial selection committee. "That's bad for justice in Minnesota."

Nationwide, 38 states elect judges to their highest courts. In Minnesota, governors typically appoint judges, although they may stand for re-election. Incumbents rarely lose.

Tuesday's ruling piggybacks a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision - also involving Wersal - that wiped away rules barring candidates from talking about disputed legal and political issues.

Wersal, a 49-year-old attorney, got trounced twice in state Supreme Court races, including a run against former Minnesota Vikings football great Alan Page. He set his sights on the state Supreme Court in the mid-1990s because he was angry at decisions on taped confessions and drugs that were considered favorable to defendants.

Wersal said friends told him he didn't stand a chance at beating an incumbent justice - and as he toured the state, he began to agree. He was prohibited from telling people where he stood on the issues, and when the Republican Party tried to endorse him, he could not accept.

So Wersal changed his focus: He found a lawyer and sued, and the state GOP joined in the effort, with deep-pocketed donors bankrolling the fight.

If the ruling stands, Republicans are ready to endorse judicial candidates in next year's races. But others say the usually low-key campaigns will become multimillion-dollar battles.

Justice James Gilbert, who defeated Wersal on the 2000 ballot with 70 percent of the vote, said his victory was a rebuke of Wersal's attempt to inject pure politics in the race.

"He was trying to use the Supreme Court as a soapbox for his own political views," Gilbert said. "I felt that was very unhealthy for our system of justice."