Admit it: when you voted November 6, excited to select myriad elected officials and to weigh in on two constitutional amendments, your eyes probably glazed over a bit when it came to the list of judicial races on the back page. Who ARE these people? What do they DO? Do I care? As a lawyer, I expected to be inundated with questions about my thoughts about many of these candidates, and I was not disappointed. I don’t blame people for checking out when it comes to these races, but it’s a dangerous blind spot for our community that may come back to haunt us down the road.
Do courts matter to people who care about GLBT people and equality? You bet. In Minnesota, countless couples have been granted either second-parent adoptions (where the partner of a person with kids adopts those kids, becoming their second legal parent) or joint adoptions (where a same-sex couple works with a placement agency to adopt a child). Each of those adoptions – the numbers are not definitively known, but believed to be in the thousands – was granted by a district court judge.
Trans? Guess where all those legal name-changes wind up, and where many people go to seek amendments to their birth records? You got it: district court.
Affected by domestic abuse, or being harassed by a neighbor, and need an Order for Protection or Harassment Restraining Order? Head to district court.
Victim of a crime? You know where the alleged perpetrators are prosecuted: district court. For example, in the past two years, the man who killed his girlfriend, Krissy Bates, and the woman who is accused of assaulting CeCe McDonald, both trans women, have faced prosecution in Hennepin County district courts.
Additionally, judges in Hennepin County have recently issued rulings allowing a surviving same-sex spouse (the couple was married in California) to inherit property after his partner passed away without completing a will, and declaring, upon the parties’ request, that a same-sex couple’s out-of-state marriage was no longer in effect.
These are the district courts. Higher up, we have the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court. In 2010, three couples filed a lawsuit ultimately seeking an appellate ruling that the Minnesota constitution guaranteed their right to marry.
Simply put, it matters who is making these decisions, and it matters that the courts exist and have the resources needed to function. In Minnesota, there are those who seek to politicize the courts, by encouraging partisan endorsements and urging judicial candidates to take stands on the very issues they are expected to judge impartially. To know a judge shares your party label may make you feel good (or may even make it easier to cast votes on election day), but how would you feel if the judge was from another party? Would you feel you had a real shot at a fair hearing? Most Republicans and Democrats actually agree: judges should be selected on the basis of merit, not party labels.
And that part about resources for the judicial branch? That’s where things have been getting difficult in recent years, due to persistent budget shortfalls and a sense among some in the political branches that Minnesota’s NON-political branch is not that critical. Currently, there are vacancies on the bench across the state, and courthouses are cutting their hours of operation to save money. Unfortunately, the need for court services has not diminished. Additionally, demand for civil legal services – free or sharply reduced-rate representation in certain areas for very low-income people – has skyrocketed at exactly the same time the legislature has cut funding. The public-defender system is also creaking.
So what do we in the GLBT community do? Two things: first, the legislature reconvenes in January, and will be grappling with yet another budget deficit. Some legislators will think they can save money by underfunding the justice system, without realizing the impact on individuals and on the system as a whole. We have friends in high places, and we should not hesitate to let them know: we care about the courts, because we need them!
Second, in 2014 we will once again be faced with a ballot that includes a list of judicial candidates. Each of us can take the time to research them, and their reputations in the community, and cast informed votes. These are people who could have the power to hold accountable those who would harm us, help build our families and confirm our identities, and establish our constitutional rights. Isn’t that worth doing a little homework?