Two dozen candidates crowd judicial ballot in Stillwaterby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — A rare quirk of election law has voters in eight counties picking from among two dozen candidates for an open judge's seat in Stillwater.
The setup at a recent candidate debate in Monticello to accommodate just 14 of the people running to be a local district court judge in east-central Minnesota included four video cameras, nine microphones and a 30-foot table.
People across the 10th district, which stretches from Stillwater to St. Cloud, will be voting. It's about the size of Connecticut with a population of about 750,000 people.
Mary Smits, from Afton, is an attorney running in the race and said some of her would-be constituents have asked why she isn't doing door-knocking.
"I'd still be knocking on doors next summer," she said.
This story actually starts in May, when sitting Judge Thomas Armstrong filed for re-election. But he withdrew after filing ended in June, effectively retiring as of January.
In the meantime, his law clerk, Dawn Hennesy filed to run, leaving her alone on the ballot. She also withdrew, amid suspicion that they'd arranged a backdoor succession.
And here's the quirk: her withdrawal reset the election from square one. Any lawyer with 500 signatures could run.
That got Hennesy back on the ballot, who's now joined by 23 others.
"I've worked for Judge Armstrong for 10 years and I view my job for the last 10 years as an apprenticeship," Hennesy said.
The rest of the state's judicial races were winnowed down to two candidates by September primaries. But the do-over made it too late in Stillwater. That left two dozen candidates in the November election. One candidate, Jack Hennen, said he dropped out but is still listed on the ballot.
Other candidates include Assistant State Attorney General Pete Marker, and former state legislators Tad Jude and Brian LeClair.
It's believed to be the biggest general election field since more than 20 people ran for the Minneapolis school board in the 1980s.
And now, all these judicial candidates are struggling to distinguish themselves.
David Hanson is a former prosecutor who started the St. Thomas Law School Journal and once played with the Bemidji Symphony Orchestra.
"I'm actually the youngest of the candidates," he said. "The Minnesota judiciary has kind of had a reputation of being an old boy's network, and I'm kind of trying to buck that trend."
But other candidates are relying on time-tested politics.
Chris Penwell won the Republican Party nod for the seat, beating out five others, but like the rest of the field, he's counting on the internet to help define the race.
"I have taken my first foray into Facebook," Penwell said. "I'm at an age where I actually had to have a 26-year-old build my Facebook page for me, but I at least have a rudimentary understanding of it."
In fact, the internet may be the only place big enough to run this race -- even the Bar Association decided not to poll members about the ballot, a typical place to look for guidance in judicial elections.
You can find most of the candidates on the web; see the right side of this article for links.
Several of the candidates and even election officials have said it probably shouldn't happen this way again. Among them is Tad Jude, the former Republican legislator.
"The Legislature may look at setting up a primary for these kinds of situations," Jude said. "I think the race does call for a primary."
In the meantime, voters in Anoka, Chisago, Isanti, Kanabec, Pine, Sherburne Washington and Wright counties likely have some homework to do before Election Day.
- Morning Edition, 10/11/2010, 8:40 a.m.