It’s In Your Court: How do judges become judges?


Judge Steve Halsey

During the general election in November you may turn over your ballot and find a list of candidates for district court judge, as well as candidates for Minnesota Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals. You will see no contested races for district court judge if you live in the Tenth Judicial District consisting of eight counties: Anoka, Chisago, Isanti, Kanabec, Pine, Sherburne, Washington, and Wright. There will be, however, contested races for district court in other Minnesota districts and for the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court. You may have wondered, “How do judges become judges?”

In Minnesota only licensed attorneys may become district court or appellate court judges. An attorney becomes a judge by one of two processes: (1) election or (2) appointment by the governor. The appointment process begins when a judge retires, dies, resigns, or is removed, creating a vacancy, or when a new judicial seat is created by the Legislature. When a judicial seat is open, attorneys complete applications for appointment and submit them to the commission on Judicial Selection. The commission is comprised of lawyers and non-lawyers, 27 appointed by the governor and 22 by the Minnesota Supreme Court. The commission reviews the applications and chooses about 12 applicants to interview. Following the interview, the commission recommends three to five finalists to the governor for an interview, after which the governor interviews the finalists and appoints the judge. The commission has been in existence since 1986 and was created by the Legislature with the purpose of promoting selection of judges based upon merit and experience, rather than political affiliation. The statute creating the commission states that it “shall evaluate the extent to which candidates have…integrity, maturity, health if job related, judicial temperament, diligence, legal knowledge, ability and experience, and community service.”

The second route to the bench is by election. An attorney files with the Secretary of State to run against a sitting judge in the general election, or for a vacant seat that requires election. A primary election takes place if there are more than two candidates. Traditionally in Minnesota there have been relatively few contested elections for district court judge other than in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, but that is changing. Appointed judges must seek their first election in the next general election which is more than one year after they are sworn in after appointment by the governor. District Court judges are elected by judicial district, not by the county in which they are chambered. So in the Tenth Judicial District, voters in the eight counties vote for the district court judges sitting in the Tenth. As a result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Republican Party v. White, there have been significant changes in the Minnesota rules prohibiting judges from declaring their political positions on issues, seeking political party endorsements, or accepting campaigning funds from political parties. 

There are currently 45 judges within the Tenth Judicial District, making it the second largest district (number of judges) in Minnesota behind Hennepin (4th District) County. You may read the biographies of judges within your district and county at www.mncourts.gov and scroll down to “Judicial Officer Directory.” You may also find more information at the Tenth Judicial District public website at www.mncourts.gov/district/10/

Remember: It’s in Your Court!

— Wright County District Court Judge Steve Halsey is chambered in Buffalo. He also maintains a blog at www.minnesotafamilylawissues.blogspot.com.

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