District judges are elected officials. We serve for six-year terms and stand for election every six years.
Most judges in Minnesota initially became a judge by being appointed by the governor after a screening process. A few, myself included, initially became a judge by being elected.
Most judicial vacancies occur when a judge retires. If a judge retires at the end of his or her six year term, that judgeship is filled by an election. Most judges retire in the middle of a term. Those positions are filled by appointment.
Applicants for these judgeships are screened by a special commission set up just for that purpose. Members of the Commission on Judicial Selection are appointed by the governor and by the Supreme Court. It is called a "merit" selection process. The commission screens the applicants and sends the names of the finalists (usually three) to the governor, who, after interviewing the finalists, makes an appointment.
Contested judicial elections are rare in Minnesota as most judges are not challenged when they come up for election. We are in the Ninth Judicial District, which is, geographically, the largest judicial district in the state.
The 17 counties in the Ninth District include Aitkin, Beltrami, Cass, Clearwater, Crow Wing, Hubbard, Itasca, Kittson, Koochiching, Lake of the Woods, Mahnomen, Marshall, Norman, Pennington, Polk, Red Lake and Roseau. Judges are elected district wide, and when you vote you can vote on each judicial race in the District.
There are 23 judges here in the Ninth Judicial District. The district is far too large for each judge to regularly hear cases in each county, so we have divided the district into "work areas," and each judge is assigned to a single work area.
Thus, while we are all "district" judges and can hear cases in any county in the district, we judges spend most of our time in our assigned work area. I spend almost all of my time in my work area in Clearwater and Hubbard counties.
Every year, however, each judge in the district sets aside a couple of weeks to be "on call" and available to cover cases for a judge who might become ill or have a family emergency. When I am "on call" I am ready to jump into my Jeep and drive to any county in our district to cover cases. Last month when I was "on call" I traveled to Lake of the Woods and Koochiching counties to cover court.
Every so often judges are also assigned a case from outside their work area when the local judges are unable to hear the case. Over the years I have been assigned to such cases all over the district.
Some of these cases have been both interesting and difficult. The first memorable conflict case I was assigned to was in Crow Wing County. In recent years I have had conflict cases in Beltrami, Cass and Norman counties. Just last month I handled a Marshall County conflict case.
A judge's work includes more than just hearing cases in court. We also make administrative and policy decisions that affect the entire district. The 23 judges in the Ninth District meet quarterly and make numerous decisions regarding staffing, allocation of resources, budgeting and programming that affect every county in the district.
Why do we have judicial districts? Article VI, Section 4 of our state's constitution provides that "the number and boundaries of judicial districts shall be established in the manner provided by law" and that "there shall be two or more district judges in each district."
This provision requires the Legislature to establish judicial districts. Minnesota originally had six judicial districts. At some point the number of districts was increased to 19.
In 1957, the Legislature passed the current law providing for 10 judicial districts.
While I cannot read the minds of those who drafted our state constitution, I suspect that the rationale for having judicial districts was to locate courts and judges throughout the state to ensure that all citizens would have access to justice. Indeed, all Minnesotans have a right to seek justice in our courts.
Even those of us who choose to live up here in Greater Minnesota.
As always, remember, it is your court.
Paul Rasmussen is a district court judge in the Ninth Judicial District. He is chambered in Clearwater County and works primarily in Clearwater and Hubbard counties. His e-mail address is: paul.rasmussen@-courts.state.mn.us.
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