We are continuing our Meet the Candidates conversations for the November 3rd, 2020 elections. We recently talked with Ben Lindstrom - candidate for Judge in the 9th Judicial District. You can find his social media here.
It is our goal to give you information so you can go to the polls ready to vote.
ARE YOU REGISTERED TO VOTE? Find out who will be on your ballot at mnvotes.org.
*KAXE/KBXE News and Public Affairs Director Heidi Holtan recently spoke with Ben Lindstrom. The following transcript has been edited for clarity. The audio of this interview is available at the top of this page.
(Heidi Holtan) Q: There are 24 judges in Minnesota's ninth district. This includes 17 counties and three tribal nations. Of the 24 judge seats, twelve are up for reelection in 2020, and two of the judge seats are contested. That includes the seat that is currently held by Judge Charles Halverson. His opponent, Ben Lindstrom, joins us now on KAXE/KBXE. Thanks for being with us today. Tell us about your background and how it led you to wanting to run for judge.
(Ben Lindstrom) A: Going back all the way to when I was a kid, I guess I've always had a affinity for Cass County. Cass County is my current home. I live here with my wife and three children. I have a two year old, a five year old, and a seven year old. And, about ten years ago, I came on board with the Cass County attorney's office as an assistant county attorney. And I guess one of my dream jobs is to work and live in the community and have an opportunity to serve it. Ultimately I was elected as County Attorney here, and I've been serving in that capacity most recently. I guess in terms of why am I running for judge? I guess I've had a lot of experiences in the courts over the last decade here. I've seen a lot of different judges and I felt that it was appropriate or almost necessary for me to stand up for what I believe. Ultimately, the judge I'm running against doesn't live in Cass County and was in another county, but he makes a lot of decisions that affect the people here. I would say my, my hometown and my family, and I had a number of decisions I disagreed with. And so, I said if I am going to expect my children to stand up for their beliefs, then I need to do the same and lead by example. So that's kinda in a nutshell why I'm doing this.
Q: You know, most people don't know a lot about judges. They don't know about how the election process goes. A lot of times people go to the polls, they don't turn over the ballot. So when we have these conversations, we're always saying at the very least, turn that ballot over and find out about the people who are running for these seats. What are your thoughts about this process? What do you know about that appointment process?
A: Sure. The Minnesota constitution doesn't necessarily say judges need to be appointed first. Judges in our constitution are supposed to be elected. They serve six year terms. If somebody is a judge and they don't file to run again, there's what's called a vacant seat, that then anybody who files for office can run to fill. The standard practice that has taken place though, is that judges generally retire in the middle of their term and allow the governor to appoint who the governor believes is appropriate. In theory, there's supposed to be a selection committee, that's people. In theory, that sounds good. I don't know, in practice that it always works out in terms of like Cass County here. I've actually been in Cass County longer than either of the presiding judges here, but the most recent vacancy, there was a selection committee that never called me and asked me my opinions on anything related to the process.
And yet I'm the elected County Attorney for my community. I've worked in the community for a decade. The person who was appointed was somebody I was prosecuting a homicide on the opposite side and would ultimately be a person who processes thousands of cases that the office I manage puts through the system. So it's a little concerning when you have a selection committee that doesn't even call somebody who is clearly going to be impacted by the decision or recommendation they make. So, I guess that's my understanding of the process. And I guess maybe I'm expressing a little bit of frustration with how it worked in this case.
Q: So have you ever put your name to be considered to be appointed judge? Would you do that in the future, if you aren't elected to this position?
A: I've never applied to become a judge before through the vetting process. This is the first go round at it. And, you know, ultimately, as I noted in my initial answer, I'm standing up in this instance because I feel it's something I need to do to maintain my personal integrity, to say I stood up for what I believed in. I essentially forfeit my right to complain about what I've seen if I didn't at least try to engage the lawful process. I also think it's important that you kind of noted, you know, people get these ballots, they look on the back, they don't know anything about them. For the most part, they never have a choice because there are so few contested races. I also think it is a good notion for people to become aware, to be educated about who their leaders are and why they're doing what they're doing, and who they're putting in there.
Q: We are talking to Ben Lindstrom today. We're talking about the judge's race in Minnesota Judicial District Nine. I don't know how it works for County Attorney. That's an elected position. Is it a nonpartisan role?
A: It would be a nonpartisan election for County Attorney. So County Attorney...only one county votes a person in, whereas that judicial races are 17 counties throughout the ninth judicial district.
Q: That's my next question to you. You have to do this already, but how do you feel about holding a nonpartisan position and what that means for a judge?
A: Sure. I mean, you know, it can be difficult cause you run into people and they always want to hear all your specific thoughts on specific instances. And especially with the judicial race, you're not supposed to get into how you might decide a particular case. So, I guess I've seen a lot of frustration from some voters or potential voters because they want to know who you are. Why should they vote for you? And certainly when we have elections, the whole notion of an election is to have an informed electorate. That's making decisions that the community believes is best for them. So, there can be a little bit of frustration.
Q: I wonder if you would tell us a little bit about the ninth judicial district includes something called treatment court. Can you explain to us what that treatment court is and your thoughts on it?
A: Sure. There's a number of treatment courts throughout the district and throughout the state and throughout the country. In terms of a judicial race, it's probably a smaller portion of what judges do. Here in Cass County, we process thousands of cases every year and, treatment courts would, when we're operating at full capacity, we see maybe a dozen cases a year. That's not to say they don't have an important role to play, because I have seen them work successfully. I've also seen some failures on some ends of things, but they do have the capacity to work. One thing I would be hopeful that the legislature and Supreme Court would do, would be to promulgate some rules to provide guidance for how they should operate. We have rules of criminal procedure, rules of juvenile delinquency. We have rules related to civil commitments rules related to almost everything we do. Courts are all about applying rules to particular sets of circumstances so that people can predict what should happen and how it should happen. And so certainly having some groundwork from statutory framework, or the Supreme court promulgating, some rules that everybody either has to follow or can agree should be followed would be useful.
Q: So those kinds of rules aren't there now? It's under the jurisdiction of the judge, would you say?
A: I mean, the way they work now is you have a bunch of key players that come together, and in theory, put together a program that has some guidelines that everybody can agree on in terms of the types of cases that would come in and et cetera. There may be some funding sources that limit the types of cases that can be accepted. For example, if you get a federal or a state grant, that grant funding may limit you from taking certain offenders that have prior convictions for certain crimes of violence. And so some of those things are restrictive on what you can do with them.
Q: Certainly we're living in different times in this pandemic. I'm sure it's affected your role quite a bit as County Attorney. I wonder if you, on that note, and then also just more generally, if you could give advice to our listeners. Hopefully, we won't have times where we're going to be in front of a judge, but it happens. And they're also kind of the difficult times in life and people are pretty stressed out about it. What kind of advice can you give to people on how to approach that?
A: On how to approach the pandemic or the court system?
Q: I guess I asked you two of those. First, the court system, and then let's talk about the pandemic.
A: Well, I mean the court system is there because it helps ensure the rule of law is followed. Most of the people that come through the system are good people. They've just had a bad day or a bad set of circumstances. The system is there to ensure that their rights are respected, but it's also there to ensure that there is some accountability for things that have happened in the past too. In terms of the pandemic, certainly that has made things a lot more difficult for folks. Um, you know, jury trials were suspended here in Cass County for nearly five months, and that can make it difficult to process the volume of cases. Most cases we process don't have a trial associated with them, but the fact that a trial could happen, helps the parties evaluate risk of litigation, and manage that risk through resolution.
So there is a bit of backlog now, but the courts are operating under a system of Zoom and telephone hearings. And certainly that can be frustrating for people because there's a lot of, "can you hear me now?" Or "My phone doesn't work, and my TV doesn't work," but I think ultimately the system is still trying to process cases and provide people with a peaceful way to resolve disputes. We've continued to put cases into the system. Throughout the entire pandemic declaration law enforcement has still arrested people that need to be arrested. So I do think, as a community, all of us are going to be able to come to the pandemic and hopefully be better... on the backend.
Q: We talked about that the judge races are not as well known to voters. How are you going about campaigning and making sure people know you're running?
Well. It's about getting the word out there. You know, using social media...I have a website: benlindstrom.com, where people can go to learn more, and getting the word out through signs. I've had a lot of people contact me and say, "Hey, Ben, we've seen your signs." And it's kind of interesting to hear because they start talking to their neighbors about, "Hey, we see these judicial races," and they start talking amongst themselves about, "Hey, we didn't even know judges were always elected." So I'm hopeful the social media campaign, getting out and visiting with people, getting the signs out there gets people, at least thinking about them. Because whether I win or lose this election, the fact that people got to think about judicial elections and how we select our judges, I think that's instrumental to our system.
Q: I was looking at your website. You have on there to "take your courts back." What does that mean to you?
A: Well, it means to me that our constitution says judges shall be elected. They shall serve six year terms and they shall be selected by the district over which they're going to make decisions. So in this case, where the ninth judicial district, there's 17 counties. So that group of 17 counties should be deciding who their judges are. And I talked a little bit about the judicial selection committee the way the system operates now, at least in practice, when there's retirement, there's a vacancy. And the governor gets to appoint. Well, the governor is in Saint Paul. The governor is elected by people outside of our district. And so in terms of taking our courts back, we are literally saying, "Hey, the constitution says judicial elections are the way we're supposed to select judges." I think it's important to, at least from my perspective, to note that I do believe the constitution has preference for the elections. Not only does it say that judges should be elected, but even when the governor appoints somebody to a judgeship, that judge then has to run in the next general election a year after their appointment. So, they don't just get to fill out the balance of their predecessor's term. The people have to come in and say yes, this is the decision we agree with.
Q: That is Ben Lindstrom. He is running for the ninth judicial district to be a judge. And Ben, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it. You can find more information at benlindstrom.com.
A: Thank you, Heidi.
*please credit KAXE/KBXE - independent public media in northern MN when using excerpts of this interview. Responses to our Meet the Candidates interviews can be left at 218-999-9876 or by email.