Claiming judicial elections "are a lot of bull," Minnesota Supreme Court candidate Greg Wersal waved at passers-by Thursday in front of the Crow Wing County Courthouse as he stood next to a replica of a cow he's named Bessie.
Wersal, a Golden Valley attorney, wants to change the rules that strictly limit what issues judicial candidates may discuss and prohibit them from saying whether they have received endorsements from political parties. Failure to follow the rules can lead to ethical charges against the attorney-candidate.
Judicial candidates are also prohibited from raising money on their own behalf, unlike other political candidates. A committee must raise the money for them.
The reason for his unorthodox campaign style, Wersal said, is because his own freedom of speech has been taken away from him while he's a candidate.
"The (Minnesota) Supreme Court has shut the entire election system down," Wersal said. "This whole election system doesn't make sense." Attorneys are reluctant to challenge incumbent judges because of fund-raising restrictions and the sitting judges' right to have the title "incumbent" behind their name on the ballot. Those are among the reasons, Wersal said, attorneys are reluctant to challenge incumbent judges.
If "incumbent" was not listed after sitting judges' names, Wersal said all the rules about discussing issues would disappear overnight.
"It's not like lawyers are afraid to run for office," he said, noting the high number of attorneys in the Legislature.
The profession's ethics rules are decided by judges, he said, and upstart candidates are afraid of losing their livelihood.
One issue he did discuss in general terms was his contention that Minnesota has the lowest imprisonment rate of any state. The reason for that, he said, is because judges put criminals on probation instead of sending them to prison. Wersal said he is prohibited from telling voters how he would address that problem.
Judicial elections, he said, are a sham.
"The last time I've seen elections like this was behind the Iron Curtain," he said.
He was endorsed by the Republican Party but judicial ethics rules prohibit him from making any comment on the matter. His campaign committee has filed suit in federal court to allow him to use the GOP endorsement as part of his fund-raising.
"We're fooling ourselves if we think judges don't make political decisions," Wersal said.
While some have criticized the partisan judicial races in states such as Texas as undignified and expensive, Wersal said those critics are primarily lawyers and judges. He said the Texans he's talked to like their system.
He successfully convinced the secretary of state to allow him to use his wife's Scandinavian name of Carlson as his middle name on the ballot.
He said he didn't use Carlson in his legal practice but said "I'm married to a Carlson. I have breakfast with a Carlson."
Wersal was asked whether voters might assume he was using the common Minnesota name in a ploy to win votes.
"Let's assume you're right," he said. "I think that's an admission that the election process doesn't work."
Wersal, who was raised near Redwood Falls, has been an attorney for 20 years. He was asked to explain why he was better qualified to serve on the court than his opponent, Justice James Gilbert.
"I understand democracy and I understand elections" he said. "You've got to be accountable to the people."
Wersal has taken Bessie to several courthouses and has encountered a few attorneys and judges who disagree with his views.
"I've had friendlier encounters," he said. "Some of them reacted strongly."
He attended St. John's University and the University of Minnesota Law School. In 1998, he challenged Justice Alan Page.
"Some people say I'm having a mid-life crisis. I don't think it's that," he said, explaining his crusade to change judicial elections.
He said at a certain stage in life it's natural to assess what one has accomplished. He saw the problem with judicial elections, he said, and became determined to fix it.
"I'm going to fix that system," he said. "I'm going to restore the elections."
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