MARSHALL - For many people, it's just one word on the back of the ballot. But Greg Wersal said that word, "incumbent," carries a lot of weight for election of Minnesota Supreme Court judges.
In most cases, Wersal said, voters who see a candidate labeled as an incumbent on the ballot will choose that candidate over a challenger. It's a practice only used on Supreme Court candidates, and one of many Wersal says serve only to keep the current judges on the bench.
"Many are running unopposed. It's a symptom of an election system that is failing," Wersal said.
Wersal, a rural Redwood Falls native and an attorney in Belle Plaine was traveling through southwest Minnesota on Wednesday while campaigning for state Supreme Court. Wersal is running against Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice Helen Meyer.
Wersal said he is running primarily to oppose practices that keep judges from being held accountable to voters. He would also be against a Minnesota constitutional amendment calling for state Supreme Court judges to be appointed instead of elected.
So far, Wersal said he's gotten a good public response from the campaign. "All I tell people is, there are judges who want to take away your right to vote" for state Supreme Court, he said. "Most people say they want to keep the voting process."
Wersal first tried to run for Minnesota Supreme Court in 1998, but he said he was limited by rules that prohibited judicial candidates from giving their opinions on legal and political issues, soliciting campaign funds, seeking endorsements or speaking at political party conventions.
"In a normal election," Wersal said, political candidates can't win if they can't do any of those things. But if judicial candidates broke the rules, they could lose their law licenses.
Wersal disputed the judicial campaign rules in federal court. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the rule against judicial candidates stating their opinions, and in 2005 the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the rules against candidates attending political party gatherings, seeking party endorsements and soliciting campaign donations.
Currently, Wersal said, he is also waiting to hear the federal appeals court's decision on another lawsuit, this one over issues including the "incumbent" designation on the ballot for judicial candidates.
Wersal said being accountable to voters doesn't mean putting partisan politics over interpreting the law. Instead, it means that voters should be able to remove state Supreme Court judges who are abusing their power or not doing a good job.
"All government power, if there are no checks or balances on it, is going to be abused," Wersal said. Judges "should always be a little scared" of losing their state Supreme Court seats, he said.