#250 – Dick Bernard: a troubling sign among Signs

Certain at this time of year in Minnesota is change in the appearance of nature. Leaves change colors and ultimately drop off; Fall flowers erupt in all their glory, including some absolutely brilliant wildflowers on my daily walk.
Every other year, Fall brings with it a new and odd biennial ‘foliage’. Locals call them campaign signs, and they erupt along the area roads. In recent days I have begun to look at them with increasing interest, largely because of a new species I have observed for the first time.
Lawn signs for political candidates are essential, even though they do not inform. Note a lawn sign driving along a road (where most of them are found) and normally it will emphasize only a single word, either the candidates first or last name. The hope is that some befuddled voter will see the name and remember “Scotty” (or whomever) when they enter the booth on November 2, and vote for him because they saw his name on a sign. Certainly, the sign has no other purpose than name recognition. One would hope that we don’t elect our local candidates based primarily on what their name is….
But this week I saw a new sign, one which I haven’t seen before, along the streets I traverse each day.

Lawn sign Woodbury MN September 29, 2010

I noticed two things about that sign: the candidate is running for Judge, and he is proudly advertising his endorsement by a political party.
Rarely on lawn signs do I see any reference to political party, particularly for local office.
In this instance, the candidate is one of 24 candidates for a single judgeship in Minnesota’s 10th Judicial District. I am not sure what caused this tsunami of candidates in this district, but the fact of the matter is that each of us who vote on November 2 will have to select one of these 24, either somewhat informed or at random, or not cast a vote at all. This particular candidate seems to be looking to get a leg up on his competitors by getting a partisan endorsement, and that concerns me, especially in an election for a Judge. The opposing party is in a quandary: it must similarly engage.
Questions abound on an endorsement of this sort. The endorsing party is, first of all, currently a party of fragments, from fanciers of Tea to moderates and even progressive in attitude. When the label is placed on the lawn sign, which party members actually did the endorsing? It makes a big difference. But all we know is the name on the sign.
What risk am I to take if I happen to be of some other party, and end up in a contest before this particular person, if he is finally elected Judge in November? He has telegraphed his bias. There is no law that says Judges cannot be partisan; but they should not be seated at the bench in, say, Red or Blue robes. Achieving justice in our system is hard enough to have to deal with an avowedly partisan judge, who likely sought the endorsement he now proudly advertises, and implicitly is beholden to.
In a race with as many candidates as there are in this one, odds are that this guy will be wearing Judge’s robes come January.
This is not an outcome even the endorsing party should welcome.
The judiciary should not be an arm of one party or another. It should do what it is supposed to do: interpret the law.
This sign is one of many that certain groups are attempting to undercut and subvert the neutrality of the legal Bench.
This is not good news for our democracy.