The GOP’s Keystone Kommittee

One of the downsides of being a GOP activist and officer is that you have to get involved, even passively, in GOP inside baseball.   Ever.  For any reason.

And of course, it’s important; without a viable challenge to the DFL, Minnesota is a few downturns away from turning into California.  Or Minneapolis.

So I go to the meetings.  I vote on stuff.  I do my bit to try to help get better people elected to office; not just Republicans, but conservative Republicans who support limited government.

And I try to get as informed as I can about some of the “inside baseball” issues in the GOP; the budget deficit (how the hell…?), the collapse in the Cities, the turnout issues in the first and second ring ‘burbs…

…and of course, the Judicial Elections Committee.

That Buzzing Sound That Never Goes Away:  The JEC is an obscure fixture in the MNGOP, focusing both on endorsing judicial candidates and fighting for judicial reform.

As re the second?  The subject is a deadly combination of intensely technical and very important.   It’s intensely picayune – and absolutely vital.  The judiciary has turned into an unaccountable, opaque, lifetime sinecure in Minnesota; judges have extremely disproportionate power as a result, and the ability to make sweeping decisions with almost no accountability.  And the power extends beyond just the courtroom; the past several state redistricting processes, including the 2010 redistricting – gerrymandered enough to make Bull Connor and George Wallace sit up in the grave and say “Hey, bucko, you’re getting a little carried away, here”.  “Shall Issue” carry reform was struck down in 2004 by a judge whose home was a DFL hamster wheel and who, ignoring the fact that every state budget is a combination of omnibus bills full of unrelated amendments, struck down the law because it wasn’t closely enough related to the bill that was originally amended.

So there is a problem that needs to be solved.

There’s a lot of history to the notion of judicial endorsements, and the creation of the JEC, and its activities since it was established; I’ve written about them in the past, and I won’t rewrite it all now (search my site for references to the phrase “My brain went blank and my ass went numb”).

But it’s the JEC’s recent history that concerns me most.

Last Saturday was the GOP’s State Central Committee meeting.  I didn’t attend – but the future of the JEC was one of the subjects up for discussion.  And my butt went a little numb just reading the accounts on Twitter.

Business:  Of course, the JEC’s main claim to “fame” was the endorsement of Michelle McDonald to run for State Supreme Court.  This happened at the MNGOP State Convention in Rochester in May of 2014.  McDonald turned out to have a pending year-old DUI charge – about which the convention was not told.   We’ve written about this at some length in the past.

Let’s fast forward to last Saturday.  A series of handouts was waiting for the SCC delegates as they arrived at the event, or distributed during the convention; a friend scanned and sent them to me (the scan is included below the jump).

In it, the JEC explains the reasons for its existence – and, to be honest, does it fairly well, in places (and let’s be honest – the handout was written by logorrheacs, and you have to dig to find the good stuff.  But it’s in there).  In all my years of listening to JEC members trying to explain why judicial endorsements, and judicial reform, are good and vital, and why retention elections are bad, this is the first time even the faintest hint of a light has gone off above my head.

And so partly as a result of this handout, my previous determination to tear down the JEC, with flamethrowers if necessary, has been tempered just a bit.

I said “the JEC”.

The JEC’s membership is another story.

Twenty Octogenarians Driving A Clown Car:  If you recall – and I completely forgive you if you do not – the history of and beef with the McDonald endorsement goes a little something like this:

  1. The JEC recommended Michelle McDonald – a controversial family-law lawyer – for nomination to run for the Supreme Court (SCOM).
  2. At the State Convention, after the delegates had endured a 20-odd-hour endorsement battle for Senate, the JEC brought McDonald to the stage for a speech and a motion for endorsement by acclamation.  Many delegates were out – grabbing a bite, or in the bathroom, or stretching their legs after the endless Senate battle – and many that were in the room reported feeling bum-rushed – but the motion for acclamation passed, and McDonald was endorsed.
  3. The following week, the media reported that McDonald had a pending DUI charge awaiting trial.
  4. Reports emerged that the JEC had been aware of this charge, but had voted to nominate McDonald anyway, and had voted to not inform the delegates, including blocking an attempt to issue a minority report to the convention that would have brought up the legal issues for the delegates’ consideration.
  5. McDonald and the MNGOP brass spent the next five months fighting each other, under a blazing media spotlight, rarely managing or bothering to engage the DFL’s candidate, Darth Lillehaug, on any level.
  6. McDonald went on to lose the election against Lillehaug.  According to some reports, her campaign raised less that $1,000, and spent about $8,000.

The handouts give a couple of insights into the JEC’s performance – or “performance” – at the 2014 State convention, in the first two pages (the pink ones, whose order is reversed; page 2 is actually page 1).   It’s also full of opinion-driven weasel words – “the chair appeared…”, “in the committee’s opinion, the chair…” and the like.

There are two quotes from the handout, though, that display…something about the JEC’s opinion of itself; whether that something is arrogance, incompetence or malfeasance, I’m not sure and I’ll leave it to better judges than I.

It should be noted that the purpose of any endorsing committee is to spare the convention the task of sorting through a candidate’s personal life.  the job of any endorsing committee is to do the work in confidence and present a yes or no to the convention.  Committees focus on a candidate’s message, their willingness to campaign hard and their ability appeal (sic) to voters.  The idea that the Judicial Election Committee (or any other nominating committee) should air a candidate’s personal information to the convention is badly misinformed.

Exactly what a nominating committee is supposed to do is a subject worthy of discussion. And the passage may be right; a nominating committee should concern itself with competence and electability.

But a legal proceeding that is guaranteed to provoke a media feeding frenzy is both not “personal information” – it’s a public record, available online from the courts – and of direct impact to the candidate’s electability.

So this quote – along with the rest of the information in the handout, brings up three possibilities:

  1. The majority of the JEC genuinely believed that an arrest record is “personal information” that was nobody’s business.  If this was the case, then we’re dealing with some stupid people.  Arrest records are public!  Public!  Public!  Anyone who thought this was “personal information”, and believed that the media and DFL would treat it that way, needs to be publicly (rhetorically) horsewhipped.
  2. They knew about the arrest record, but figured it wouldn’t be a problem, since McDonald assured them the charge was BS:   You’ll note how many media figured led with the whole “Michelle McDonald is innocent until proven guilty, and gosh, she looks like she has a strong case” tack, right?  Somewhere less than zero?  Part of a nominations commission’s job is to try, as far as possible, to prevent media poo-storms like…the one we had.
  3. The JEC figured the news would be a problem, but wanted to jam McDonald down anyway, leading a supermajority to vote against the issuance of a minority report.   This is the worst kind of malfeasance.

We also see in another quote that the JEC is wallowing in either wishful thinking or an arrogant desire to bullshit the rest of the party:

…in spite of the flap over a now resolved (not guilty) DWI case, Michelle McDonald for Supreme Court won 46.54% of the vote.  This is higher than Johnson, McFadden, Severson, Gilbert and Newman – all the other MNGOP endorsed candidates

How stupid do these people think the rest of the party is?

The DWI is “now resolved” – but it wasn’t at election time.  And the media certainly didn’t harp on “innocence until proven guilty”.

As to her turnout?  As we pointed out the first time the JEC tried to use this chanting point to gull the gullible, it was BS.  McDonald got 46% against Lillehaug, it’s true – but John Hancock got 42% against Mimi Wright, and virtually every contested judicial race in the state got 35-40%.  McDonald outscored random, obstinate, uninformed noise by 4-6%. And while it’s possible she outperformed “background noise” due to her brilliant campaign, it’s also possible that a few thousand shooters voted against Darth Lillehaug, and would have no matter who was nominated.

My Conclusion, For Those Who Care?:  The JEC exists for good reason.  Minnesota’s judicial system needs changes, and the GOP needs to help drive those changes.

But most of its members need to go.  Decency would involve resignations of the sitting membership for their malfeasance, or at least stupidity, in the McDonald flap.   The JEC process is almost completely opaque to delegates, and even officers at the BPOU and Congressional District level.   I’m an officer, and I have no idea how Judicial Districts elect officers and do business.  It’s not just me.

The JEC, in my opinion, is a nook and cranny of the GOP that was built by, and is controlled by, a group of people who have turned it into their little political playground.  This doesn’t serve the mission that the JEC has set out for itself.

Just my opinion.  But I’m not alone.

As we’ll see, I’m sure, come the next State Convention.


Telling Tangent: Want to know something ironic?  I might well have voted for McDonald even with the pending DUI charge, had the JEC tried a little honesty, and had McDonald spent more time tackling Darth Lillehaug than Keith Downey.  But if I’d known about her involvement in the Grazzini-Rucki custody battle, I’d have voted for Charles Manson before I’d vote for McDonald.   If McDonald was involved with kidnapping and brainwashing a couple of kids against their custodial father, she deserves much worse than losing an election.

JEC Handout for SCC 2015

9 thoughts on “The GOP’s Keystone Kommittee

  1. Part of the reason why the JEC is so opaque is (at least locally) that its Districts were force on the delegates against their wishes and in violation of the rules, AND they continually operate in violation of State Party Rules.
    In 2010, the State GOP (I assume the Executive Committee) called an Organizing Convention to create Judicial Districts. As a delegate from my BPOU, I received a convention call and attended the convention for Judicial District 2 (St. Paul and eastern Suburbs, similar but not identical to CD4).
    The Convention Chair was sent to us by the State Party from elsewhere in the State. He explained the purpose of the JDs (endorsement of judicial candidates), and we voted to endorse Ed Matthews (local activist, previous CD4 candidate).
    When we moved onto officially organizing the JD, the vote to officially organize JD2 did not receive enough “Yea” votes to create JD2. The Chair refused to accept this and went on to explain all the End of the World problems that would result if the vote stood, namely, the State Party would have to initiate the Convention Calls in the future. A re-vote occurred and JD2 was created.
    After much wrangling, what came out of that Convention was an Endorsement for Ed Mathews (resulting in his name being included on the GOP Sample Ballot during phone banks and maybe a mailing), and the election of a District Chair, Deputy Chair and a few Vice Chairs (myself included). As officers, we were given the mandate of drafting a Constitution and by-laws over the next year and presenting those documents to the Delegates at the next convention which was to take place in 2011. No more meetings were ever held. No more Conventions have been called since. No replacement Chair was ever duly elected when the original was thrown in prison.
    I’ve been a delegate/alternate from my BPOU every year since. That means I’m supposed to be a delegate to JD2 when they hold endorsing or organizing Conventions. Other than seeing a local activist attending CD4 and BPOU Conventions with a name-tag stating Judicial District 2 Chair, I haven’t heard anything from JD2. I’ve also seen the same activist sitting at the Media table with Michelle McDonald (and her camera) at other State Central Committee conventions.

  2. As to Michelle MacDonald specifically, people really should do some checking into her representation of the Mother in the Grazzini-Rucki case. After repeatedly stating in court that she’s representing her client “Pro-Bono,” she’s recently filed a bill for $222k and changed her story from pro-bono to at “no pay.” She’s also requested to be appointed the mother’s Public Defender because she has no money to pay for an attorney.

    “When asked yesterday afternoon for her to explain the difference between “no pay” and “pro bono”, MacDonald responded via email and wrote there was “no difference” in the two terms.”

    Add to this that the police still consider her a “Person of Interest” in the case, the JEC would do well to stop trying to get her endorsed in the spring (the hubbub on Saturday started with a request to let her speak like the other candidates present). Sadly, most consider her legal issues to be features, not bugs of her candidacy. She’s a Looney Tune that the GOP should distance itself from, not a Defender of the Little Guy to be embraced.

  3. Having thoroughly reviewed the State Party Constitution and at least one JEC Constitution (and suggesting improvements), I was struck by two contradictory thoughts at the State Central meeting. First, that we allow Legislative District conventions to endorse legislative candidates, and we insist that Congressional District conventions endorse Congressional candidates, and that a nominating committee recommends candidates for statewide offices. So why should not Judicial District conventions endorse for judicial office? It makes all the sense in the world. The fact that almost nobody cares to participate in that activity, or finds it boring or difficult (like I do), does not mean it is not important to be done and done well. If you don’t like the way it’s being done or run, get involved and fix it. I think it would be good if, somehow, MORE effort was put into getting people to care about putting “better” judges on the bench.

    But that still leaves two problems, which is where I have sympathy for those wanting to “change” the system. First and foremost, the JECs should not be the ones to [get together and] nominate judges for statewide office. That should go through the State Convention Nominating Committee just like everybody else does. (I wish I had changed my vote at SCC to that.) The second, no doubt “fixable” by the first, is that I thought McDonald was a /terrible/ candidate, not because of the DWI thing (that I didn’t know about) but because I heard her speak on a couple of occasions. Had she gone through the regular nominating process I’m not sure she would have been endorsed. Of course, if that question had come before the drawn-out Senate endorsement, as originally in the agenda, it might have been even more likely to result in rejection. Sometimes our Party is its own biggest obstacle.

  4. J.
    I don’t begrudge districts that wish to have a Judicial District to have one. It’s valid part of our party infrastructure. Personally, I don’t see the benefit of them. For JDs that lay fully within a CD, the CD can call a convention. For districts that cross CD lines, like JD2, the State Party can call a Convention during election years. If people want a more involved JD, walking in parades, phone banks, etc., there is nothing stopping them. In JD2, we can’t even properly call a convention to elect officers for the next 2 years.
    All I do see from the JDs are Charlie Foxtrots like we saw in 2014.
    Before that it was the dust up over the Judicial District Chairs Committee (a fake organization) appropriating the GOP name to endorse a candidate. Bron Scherer was successfully sued by the State Party for appropriating Party authority that he didn’t have.
    For an organization dedicated to Judicial Reform, they have a history of not following the proper by-laws governing their operations.

  5. struck down the law because it wasn’t closely enough related to the bill that was originally amended….

    Erm, that sounds like something that we want all of we can get.

  6. My own thoughts are that the people in Minnesota don’t want partisan judicial elections and it was a mistake for the MNGOP to go down this path. My evidence for this is that (a) none of the endorsed judicial candidates have won, (b) the more qualified judicial candidates (including incumbent judges) have not sought and even indicated that they didn’t want the endorsement, (c) conversations with other Republican lawyers who were considering running for the judiciary and (d) the fact neither the DFL nor any of the parties have followed suit in trying to endorse their own judicial candidates.

    While there is certainly a lot of discontent among Republican activists over the judiciary and judicial elections, I’m not even sure that this is something that Republican activists really want so much as they’ve fallen into the trap of “something needs to be done to reform judicial elections and this is something . . . .” A more modest change like removing “incumbent” from the ballot would probably have a better chance of getting enacted into law and I fear that the result of the misbehavior of the JEC and their members is that we may end up with the very “retention elections” that they say they don’t want.

    If we can’t get out of the judicial elections business, our next best option would be to eliminate the JECs and to have any judicial candidates seeking the Republican endorsement go to the CD and State conventions. Most of the serious activists within the GOP are pulling double or triple duty as officers and members of their precincts, BPOUs and CD organizations (plus the city committees for our larger metro areas). If we’re going to endorse judicial candidates (and I’d prefer we didn’t), I’d rather that they go through the process which is controlled by the people who are the most active and have the greatest stake in the brand at large where there’s more likely to be a check on the kind of foolishness that has come to exemplify the JEC.

  7. Back in 2001, the MN Vikings went into the Meadowlands to play the Giants in the NFL playoffs. They put up a horrendous goose egg, and were trounced 41-0, becomin the subject of well deserved ridicule.

    Since the GOP started this experiment with partisan endorsements of judges, they have (by my count) endorsed 42 judicial candidates, and for all the time, effort, and yes money we have spent, 0 endorsed judges have been elected.

    Whether judicial endorsements is a good idea or not (and I think it is not) it is absolutely fair to say that the party can’t afford to spend time and resources on a losing proposition.

  8. Judicial races are scary for many lawyers to contemplate. If you lose, you face the possibility of seeing your opponent in the courtroom. Many lawyers are worried about retaliation in that instance. Combined that with the perfect record of incumbents, most potential judges will opt to hope for an appointment to the bench. Heck, before Greg Wersal’s success challenge of Minnesota Judicial Campaign Laws, a campaign could only consist of filing for office and telling people that you’re running. You weren’t allowed to say much more than that.
    As to election reform, my personal preference would be to ban appointees from running for reelection. You’d be allowed to serve out a term, but not be on the next ballot. That would minimize the current practice of Judge A resigns so that Person B can be appointed and then run as an incumbent, rinse, repeat. We have de facto Lifetime Appointments (until mandatory retirement age) in Minnesota.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.