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Dave Olson, Published October 25 2010

Minnesota Supreme Court judge candidate says incumbents have advantage

Ten years ago, attorney Greg Wersal was running for a seat on the Minnesota Supreme Court when he set up a row of plywood cows on a Moorhead sidewalk.

His symbolism: Minnesota’s rules governing judicial campaigns were a bunch of bull.

Today, Wersal is running for the same job with the same message, but without the cows.

“I’m asking people a simple question: Would you vote for a judge that violated your constitutional rights? “Because that’s what’s happened here,” Wersal said. “The Minnesota Supreme Court violated everyone’s constitutional rights.”

Wersal maintains that rules governing judicial races, which are officially nonpartisan positions, give incumbents an unfair advantage.

He said that was the case 10 years ago and remains so, even though he has had some success over the past decade fighting such rules in court.

Among them, rules that barred judicial candidates from stating their political views, as well as rules barring candidates from attending political gatherings or accepting political endorsements.

“Now, I’m coming back and saying, ‘Look, it’s not just my opinion.’ I’ve got decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court. I’ve got decisions from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals that have struck down these rules as unconstitutional,” said Wersal, who is still battling for rule changes as he makes a third bid for a position on the Supreme Court.

Wersal, who lives in Belle Plaine, Minn., said current litigation focuses on rules limiting how judicial candidates can raise funds.

Campaign rules created by the Minnesota Supreme Court have the primary purpose of protecting incumbents, very few of whom ever start their judicial careers through the election process, according to Wersal.

He said it is common for judges to resign before their term expires.

And because judges “play that little game, 94 percent of all judges in our state were appointed to their positions instead of elected,” said Wersal, who is running for a seat on the Supreme Court held by Associate Justice Helen Meyer, who was appointed in 2002 by then-Gov. Jesse Ventura.

Wersal said he has been a candidate primarily to give himself standing in legal cases that may arise from his push to change the system, not because he expects to win.

“If we had free and open elections in Minnesota, I’d be fishing right now; I wouldn’t be running for office,” Wersal said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555