*We are continuing our Meet the Candidates conversations for the November 3rd, 2020 elections. We recently talked with James Hughes - candidate for Judge in the 9th Judicial District. You can find his social media here.
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*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 and Minnesota is ninth district. This includes 17 counties and three tribal nations of the 24 judge seats. Twelve are up for reelection. Two of those judge seats are contested. That includes a seat that is currently held by assistant chief judge Jana M. Austad. Her opponent, James Hughes joins us now on KAXE/KBXE. Thanks so much for talking with us today, James.
(James Hughes) A: Thank you Heidi.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your background, how you got into law and then what led you to run for judge now?
A: All right. Well, I was originally born and raised in the Chicago area, and my background really includes really typical jobs for a young kid. I worked for retail. I worked in fast food, so I've been a retail worker. I moved on in my career and became a banker. And I spent 10 years with the JP Morgan Chase organization. Some of the people in that organization that I truly admired were the trust and estate officers. And I went to law school in 2008, actually thinking that I was going to end up behind a desk and helping people write trusts or wills and protect their assets. I went to the University of Nebraska for law school and I became involved in a civil litigation program. It was much along the lines of providing free legal care and legal service to people that don't have money, but needed access to the court. And through the course of that experience, I really found that litigation was where my passion in law lied. I had family in Minnesota, so as I grew up, I spent summers going up to my grandparents' lake house in Prior Lake. Then ultimately Burnsville, when they moved, and then ultimately Pine River, when they moved to Cass County up here in the ninth judicial district. I took the Minnesota bar exam, and passed that, and saw myself in Bemidji, working at our law firm, just over in Cass Lake, on the Leech Lake Reservation. And that's where I've been since 2012.
Q: What interests you in running to be a judge now?
A: Throughout my career I've been a leader... whether that meant quick promotions to supervisory positions, or just being looked to as a person who can support and help make decisions in a business environment. That's just the personality, and that's just a skillset that I think I possess. I’ve practiced the majority of my career in Cass County and in front of the judge who occupies seat 19, whoever that would have happened to be. And at this point I think a change is needed. I think that there's a new skillset that we need on that seat, in that position. And I think I bring that to the table. I've got good relationships in the Cass County courthouse. I've got a good relationship in the greater ninth district community. And I think that me on the bench, that's something that a lot of people are in need of, and that's something I'm willing to provide, not just a career change for myself, but the people in this district.
Q: So it is unusual to, to run an election, to be a judge, if you haven't been before. What do you know about, what do you think about the process of appointments of judges in the state of Minnesota?
A: The judicial appointment process is something that's governed by the Minnesota state constitution. So article six, section eight talks about the governor being in a position to appoint judges to the district court when there was a vacancy on the bench. So, that's what happens. But that portion of the constitution goes on to say that those judges were appointed by the governor to be elected for six year terms by the people. So essentially what that means to me is that our constitution has put a check on executive power and given the judicial election or the judicial retention power back to the people. And, you know, in Minnesota, we got donors in Saint Paul, they come from different ideologies, different political mindset and, you know, in, 2013, Governor Dayton appointed the judge to the bench on seat 19.
And so ask yourself why? Was it strictly the personal qualifications? Was it something more? I think about recent appointments to the bench by our executives. Would Barack Obama have appointed John Roberts, and Samuel Alito? Probably not. Would George Bush appointed Sonia Sotomayor or Elena Kagan? Probably not. And I think there's a reason right now people are paying close attention to Ruth Bader Ginsburg's health. The mindset or the judicial qualities are extremely important to the people who are governed and ultimately have to be subjected to a judge's decision. When the governor's values match up or don't match up with the people who are governed by the judges that they placed on the bench, our constitution gives those people the ability to decide, yes, Governor, you got it right. Or no, Governor I'd like to see somebody else. So, it's a constitutional process. And at this point I don't have any qualms with that, but there's definitely criticism out there. If you read the scholars, they have various positions on whether judges should be subject to election, but this is what we have in Minnesota.
Q: We're talking with James Hughes as part of our meet the candidate series on KAXE/KBXE. He is running to be a judge in the ninth district in Minnesota. You talked about the appointments by the governor: it's an extensive process they go through, to become judge. Have you ever gone about it in that way to put your name in, to be considered for appointment? Or what do you know about that whole process?
A: Sure. I have not, but I had colleagues who have, some successfully, and some who have gone through the process and it didn't work out. At the end of the day, I think the governor makes a decision that clearly is not in a vacuum. He receives word and advice from the people in the judicial selection committee. But again, I have a hard time believing that it's not a political process. And so rather than put myself in a position where I've subjected myself to an executive decision, I think I'd like to leave it to the people.
Q: Tell us your thoughts about how it's part of the being a judge is you're required to be nonpartisan. What do you think of that, and how will that be for you if you were elected to be judged?
A: Well, I'm currently nonpartisan. I don't, at this point, have my name on the roster or the role of any major political parties. I think nonpartisan judges are what the public deserves and expects. That doesn't mean that a judge can't have conservative or ultimately traditional views of how they want to perform their job. I do believe that judges have a duty to restrain themselves from exercising more power than all of the constitution and the statutes allow. I do think that judges have a duty, not just to follow the law, but to follow the law in a fashion that is acceptable to those that they govern.
The reality in Minnesota is the judges have fairly broad discretion to do what they want as long as it's in accordance with our statutes where the rules of judicial professional and court conduct. And so what does that mean? Does it mean that a judge should throw the book at everybody who comes before them in a criminal case? Maybe, maybe not. It doesn't mean that a judge should treat a father differently than a mother in a child custody case. Probably not. A person's ideology ultimately will reflect itself in a judicial decision, so there's really no way, as far as I can tell, to remove your person, or remove who you are from a decision that you make on the bench. The law is it's accordance with the law, but at the end of the day, I think in Minnesota, we have different viewpoints, and our people have different viewpoints of what they expect from a judge. I think some judicial conservatism is a little bit more aligned with what Northern Minnesota expects right now.
Q: The ninth judicial district is a little unique in that they do something called a treatment court. Can you tell us what that is and your thoughts on it as a lawyer?
A: When we talk about treatment court, it's not just a ninth district that does it. There are treatment courts with various types throughout the state and throughout the country. In Cass County, there is a treatment court that is, a joined jurisdiction between the state of Minnesota and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. Well, if that's specifically the question I can try to address that. If it's about treatment courts in general, I can address that too. Are you able to help me clarify that question?
Q: Yeah. Well, I guess I'm kind of looking for both of those things.
A: Well, I'll go more macro with it. I'll start in talking about treatment courts in Minnesota in general, you know, our constitution and our statutes and our rules of procedure in court that are established by our Supreme Court talk about a lot of things. They talk about conciliation court, family court and juvenile court, but what they don't talk about in any direct fashion is treatment court. So by and large, these are at least from my perspective, creations of local judiciaries, creations of local actors. And I think it's unfortunate because we do have a lack of true uniformity and true structure in the state. I think that lack of structure is right for abuse of power. I think that that lack of structure is something that can, and probably should be corrected by our legislature and our Supreme court, but we're not there yet. So the treatment courts ultimately rise and fall on the front of the people who are running them.
But just as a means of contrast from other Midwest based states - Illinois and Indiana, they've got to actually talk about what and how, and in what fashion these treatment courts are to operate. So while I have no qualms about the existence of the treatment courts, I think in many respects, they do help the participants who they are targeted to help. We need more structure, so that there's some further check on judicial power. As it relates specifically to the treatment court in Cass County, it was something that was created many years ago, farther back than either me or my opponent, and our involvement there. But there's some additional jurisdictional power that the Leech Lake band has over its people and over its territory. I think in Cass County, there's a unique opportunity there for Leech Lake to exercise its inherent criminal jurisdiction over its people and perhaps impose some changes or impose some rules and regulations.
Before we get through the Supreme Court process in Minnesota, before we get through the legislative process in Minnesota...everybody knows where things take a while to accomplish...but at the end of the day, that is my concern with treatment court. In my professional career, we do support a treatment court locally, As a defense attorney on a treatment court locally, but, if appointed to the bench or elected to the bench. In that sense, I think there would need to be some serious reevaluation of the role of the judges play in these specialty programs, ask for some legislative or some Supreme Court guidance that would apply to all courts across the state,
Q: James, before we go....running to be a judge and judge elections in general are not, you know, as we typically think of people running for election. So how are you approaching this election? How are you reaching people?
A: I'm trying to share the message in an as grassroots fashion as I can. I do have a website electjames.net. I have a Facebook page of a good deal of followers, and I've got signs all over the place, but they're not your traditional election. I'm not out there swinging at one of my opponents. She's a fine person. I'm not sending flyers in the mail, but I think my word of mouth and letting people know who I am and what I'm about is sharing the word. I really hope that people will see that they feel like a person like me should be on the bench in the ninth district. They'll tell their friends, they'll tell their neighbors. And come November 3rd, we'll see a change on the bench.
Q: As we say in any interview we have about these judge elections: one of the main things, turn that ballot over and vote. That is your responsibility as a voter to vote in all of those races. And as James said, there's information available, at electjames.net. That's James Hughes, running to be a judge in Minnesota's ninth district. Thanks for your time today.
A: Thank you.
*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.