Two retirements mark change for SE Minnesota

April 15, 2018

Just shy of the mandatory retirement age, two of Southeast Minnesota’s 24 judges are hanging up their robes this spring.

The Third Judicial District will lose a combined nearly 35 years of experience on the bench with the retirements of Winona County Judge Jeffrey Thompson and Wabasha County Judge Terrence Walters. The next few months will be ones of change and transition for the district, which includes 11 counties in Southeast Minnesota.

“Both were involved in the justice system for decades, so you lose all of that wisdom when they leave,” Third Judicial District Chief Judge Jodi Williamson said.

“Any time you have a judge that leaves, there’s a big gap,” said Shelley Ellefson, judicial district administrator with the Third Judicial District. “Even though the governor uses the selection process to fill it with well-qualified and well-suited people, there is a learning curve.”

And here, in the Third Judicial District, it’s a bit unusual to have two vacancies at the same time, she added.

“Lately, there hasn’t really been a typical year,” Ellefson said, noting that turnover has been especially high in the last 5 or 6 years. “That’s been something statewide.”

Statewide, this year, seven new district court judges have been appointed to the bench. There are currently 11 vacancies, according to the State Court Administrator’s Office.

During the last decade, there has been an average of 19 new judges each year, ranging anywhere from nine to 26.

Ellefson said he believes the turnover is because many of Minnesota’s judges belong to the baby boomer generation and are now exiting the workforce.

That’s left a number of fresher judges, many with less than 10 years of experience on the bench, Ellefson said.

“It’s kind of a bittersweet thing,” Ellefson said. “It is hard and can be challenging, yet it is also exciting and new to have someone else fill the seat.”

Regardless, each judge has an influence that is his or her own, especially in the counties with just one judge, Ellefson said.

“If you’re the only judge chambered, you’re going to handle the majority of the cases there,” Ellefson said.

To elect or to appoint?

Some have called the retirements political — or at least “strategic.”

A judicial office is nonpartisan, but when a judge retires, the governor is responsible for appointing a replacement. Some say that introduces politics in the mix. Both retiring judges maintain the office is politically impartial.

For Walters, as he nears the mandatory retirement age of 70 for judges in Minnesota, it was time to retire while he could still enjoy it, he said. “As John Glenn said when he retired, there is no cure for the common birthday.” It wasn’t a political or strategic decision, he said.

Thompson, whose 6-year term expires in 2019, called his decision to retire “purposeful.”

He wanted to leave the decision in the hands of Gov. Mark Dayton because he feels the intense vetting of the merit-based appointment process is preferable to having two candidates on the ballot in the fall. But he says that was not so much a political decision as one that would lead to greater scrutiny for potential candidates.

“The politics of the judges races is overblown, in Minnesota,” he said.

The Minnesota Commission on Judicial Selection screens applicants, performs background checks and then forwards the top choices to Dayton for his final selection. And through the years, those appointments have been strong, regardless of the governor’s political affiliation, Ellefson said.

“There have been Republican governors, there have been Democratic governors, there’s been Jesse Ventura,” Ellefson said. “To me, for our judicial district, it has not mattered.”

Move that seat?

The other major change the district has recently confronted is a decision to move one seat from Winona County to Olmsted County.

That potential shift was prompted by an unmet uptick in case volume in Olmsted County. With Thompson’s retirement in Winona, now seems to be the time to move one of the three judges chambered in Winona to Olmsted County, Williamson said. About one third of the district’s judicial needs are in Olmsted County, but only six of the 24 judges are chambered in Olmsted.

With Thompson’s retirement, Winona seemed like a logical place to look, she said.

The Supreme Court has taken the proposal under consideration, though its unclear when it will announce a decision.

Despite the retirements, and the possibility of moving a judge, transitions of this type are typically smooth in the judicial branch, Williamson said.

Senior judges from other districts fill in until permanent replacements are named.

“The work gets done,” she said.