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*KAXE/KBXE News and Public Affairs Director Heidi Holtan recently spoke with Supreme Court Justice Paul Thissen. The following transcript has been edited for clarity. The audio of this interview is available at the top of this page.
(Heidi Holtan) Q: Supreme Court Justice Paul Thissen is running for election to the Minnesota Supreme Court in the only contested statewide judicial race. His background includes a law career specializing in healthcare and 16 years in the Minnesota legislature, including Speaker of the House from 2013 to 2015. In 2018, he was appointed to the Minnesota Supreme Court. Justice Paul Thissen is back with us on KAXE/KBXE. Thanks for being here.
(Paul Thissen) A: Thank you for having me.
Q: Let's talk about how judges get their jobs. You were appointed by Governor Dayton. What does that mean? What's that look like?
A: Well, that is right, but I think it's important for folks to know that, by statute in Minnesota, we actually have what we call a judicial selection process and a judicial selection commission. So before the governor makes his or her appointment, there is a very detailed vetting process, where people that want to become a judge submit applications with their experience and background check, and all of that kind of stuff. And they're screened by a committee of people, both lawyers and non-lawyers who are appointed - some by the governor, some by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court - and those folks go through people's records and they interview people. I had to sit with a group of 10 people, and they're all kind of throwing questions at me. And then that group, which is nonpartisan, sends a list of three, maybe four candidates that the governor could choose from. So then the governor makes his appointment, or her appointment, as the case may be. But then you have to run for election in the next general election after you're appointed, and then every six years after that. So that's how our process works here in Minnesota, different than the federal system.
Q: Let's talk about running for election now. You've run for election, as you were in the legislature. This is a nonpartisan position. So is it written into law that judges are nonpartisan, or is it expected of them? How does that work, and how do you approach a campaign in this way?
A: It is written into law that, unlike a legislative race, no party affiliation shows up on the ballot. That's one way that it's nonpartisan. And then as judges, and candidates for judges, we have a judicial code of conduct which also tells us that we shouldn't talk about issues, for example, that could come before the court. We don't talk about partisan issues, [such as] immigration policy and education policy, those kinds of things...but what we can talk about, and what I've been talking about a lot in the election cycle, is of course our experience and our judicial values. But also, what can we do to make sure that the courts are more responsive to Minnesotans? What can we do to make sure that everybody feels like they're getting a fair shake when they come before the court? The administration of justice is certainly something that I talk about, and that judges can talk about, in these campaigns. So, things like access to justice, making sure people can get their voice heard, that they're not excluded from the system because of their geographic location, or because they don't have money. I've spent a lot of time on this campaign talking about things like that.
Q: What are some of the ways that could be different; that more people had access to the justice system in a way that everyone deserves?
A: I think that there's a number of things. We do have a good system of legal aid and pro bono, but they're under-resourced. So one thing is advocating for more resources to make sure that there's an even playing field. When you look at things like, for instance, family law...70% of people going into court on family law cases - [things like] divorce, child custody, those types of things - don't have lawyers. And when you think about evictions, less than 5% of tenants who are being evicted have access to a lawyer. And that creates a very difficult situation. One thing that I have been working on: I led a task force that proposed a recommendation that the court is going to do a pilot program on. We just approved it. [It will] allow a very trained paralegal - people that don't have their law licenses, but are experienced and have worked in a particular area of law for a long time - to actually show up to accompany people who don't otherwise have a lawyer in some limited numbers of family law cases and in eviction cases. So to try to expand the number of folks that can provide assistance is another way to get after that. And so we're going to test that concept out. I just think we need to continued to be as innovative as possible.
I also think new technology can help. One thing I hear in greater Minnesota a lot is one of the biggest obstacles to people getting a chance to have their voice heard is transportation. They just can't get to the courthouse; it's a hundred miles away. And so, in that context, the things that we're learning - actually through dealing with COVID - on how we can use technology in a more effective way to allow people to appear virtually for certain types of hearings. I think that's another way that we can make sure that more people have access to justice, in the sense of being able to show up and have their voice heard. So we just need to continue to be as innovative as possible, because at the end of the day, one of our most fundamental callings as Americans is to establish justice. And, if some people can get access to justice and others folks can't, that's a big problem.
Q: As I've talked to judges in our region about how the courts have worked during this pandemic, one of the things that they pointed out was that they were actually very happy to be using something like Zoom, when someone could take a break at their job and be in court, and then get back to their job and not have to take a full day off of work, and somehow figure out how to get to that courthouse.
A: That is exactly right. I mean, that's the kind of technological innovation, I think, that even after we get beyond COVID, that I hope that our courts continue to think about. But the fact is we have rules in place that we suspended because of COVID that make that more difficult. So I think that's one thing as a Supreme Court, we have charge over the rules of procedure, something that we need to really kind of consider. Can we relax the rules for in-person appearances to allow exactly that time? So you can save money. You don't have to lose money by taking time off of work. All of those things are just going to make our system work better for people. And at the end of the day, that's what a big part of our job should be about.
Q: We're talking with Supreme Court Justice Paul Thissen. He's running for election. I wonder if we could talk a little more about family law. Your opponent says that there's a severe failure at the Minnesota Supreme Court to follow the rule of law and uphold the constitution. And a lot of what she talks about is family law and family court. Could you talk a little more about your experience now as a Supreme Court Justice, and what you see?
A: I have to say, first of all, that family law cases - and particularly custody, but even more so, termination of parental rights cases - are the absolute hardest cases that I see. Hard from an emotional perspective, and hard from a perspective of making sure we're making the right decision. It's one of the most fundamental things. I think that my opponent has kind of a unique perspective on the constitutionality of family law, but I think one of the insights that I share with her and I bring to that work, from my perspective, it should be difficult to terminate someone's parental rights. I do think that the family and the family unit, and the relationship between a child and a parent, is one of those most fundamental things. There should be a high showing. On the other hand, if someone is living in a very unsafe condition, we need to make sure that that child is not suffering because of some of the challenges that the parent is facing. And it also raises, to me, as I go around... A couple of times a year, I'll do what we call ride-alongs, where I will go sit with a district court judge in different parts of the state, just to get an on-the-ground feeling for what's going on. And the reality is, so much of what happens in our criminal courts, and in our family law courts, come back to mental health and addiction issues. And as a court, we also really need to work with partners of all kinds to make sure we're addressing those underlying issues of addiction, because that, really often, is what leads to these kinds of results that we just don't want to be seeing.
So I think, from my perspective, how the courts have to deal with this, and think through these issues, is to really make sure that we're working with our partners in the legislature to kind of get a better feel and a better process for making sure we're treating people fairly. But also respecting that fundamental right to keep your family together, and to have that relationship between the parent and the child. You know, I have three kids myself, and I think that would perhaps be the worst thing that could possibly happen. But also, get people help and make sure that people are getting the assistance to get back on their feet so they can be great parents. I think that it's one of those issues we have to continue to just to keep working on and working on and working on because, again, it really is one of the most fundamental things we have in our lives.
Q: What are your thoughts on wellness court or drug courts?
A: Well, I think we should try to expand [those courts]. I think it's a wonderful model. We have drug courts, we have addiction courts, we have veterans courts in different parts of the state. It's one thing that we need to continue to keep advocating, because they do take resources, but the best part of it is the idea that we're actually not just kind of resolving a particular case. You know, something happened to someone, and there's a process they go through, and then we can kind of wipe our hands. What drug courts and these mental health courts, and other similar courts are all about is really connecting. Not just resolving the particular problem that happened, but trying to get at the underlying problem that led to it, and working with, again, our justice partners across the state and other partners to connect people with the services that are going to allow them to live fuller, and live up to their potential.
For me, there's kind of two ways to think about justice, right? One is - which a lot of courts and lawyers think about it this way - it's just kind of procedural. You know, did we follow the rules? Did we get to the result the law required? But a broader sense of justice is making sure people actually have a chance to thrive, and that we're treating them as individual human beings and respecting their dignity as human beings. And I think that's the model that drug courts and addiction courts use. And I think we can use them in a lot of other ways. I mean, that's another direction I think we can even go further with family court, is to really kind of deal with all of the issues in a holistic way, instead of just a pure legal, technical way.
Q: Election Day is coming up. That's a way that all of us can be involved in this process. And as a Supreme Court Justice, I know that your advice is to definitely turn over that ballot, right?
A: Well, yes, that's what our whole campaign has really been about. The reality is, in 2018 about 750,000 fewer people voted for the Supreme Court race in that year than voted for governor. We want to make sure that more and more people [vote for judges], because the thing is, our courts, every day, our state courts, every day, especially our district courts, but all of our court systems deal with, again, those most fundamental things in people's lives. Are their families going to stay together? Is a roof going to be over their head? Is their workplace going to be a place where they can thrive free of harassment? Is someone going to go to prison, and our streets are going to be safe? State courts deal with those issues every day. And so who sits behind the bench, and the kind of judgment you think that they're going to exercise when they make decisions... Are they going to listen to people? Are they going to be fair? Those are the things people should be thinking about when they go into the ballot booth. And they have the power. Minnesotans have the power, unlike in the federal system, to actually choose their judges, and choose people they think are going to be fair, that have experience, that are going to exercise good judgment. And it's pretty easy, especially for the Supreme Court race, just to go online and do a quick Google search, and you can find out about the experience and background of the folks that are running. So I just encourage people to flip over the ballot, and vote for judge and really make an informed decision. Do a little bit of research before you go into the ballot booth.
Q: That's Supreme Court Justice Paul Thissen. He's running for election. You can find more information at paulthissen.com. Thanks for your time today.
A: Thank you so much. Have a good day.
*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.