The need for a recusal

THE NEED FOR A RECUSAL…. At some point fairly soon, a three-judge panel in Minnesota will tell former Sen. Norm Coleman (R) that he lost his re-election campaign last year. At that point, Coleman and his attorneys will seek a more favorable outcome from the Minnesota Supreme Court.

He’s almost certain to lose the appeal, but there’s a new question about one of the justices who’ll hear the case.

Justice Chris Dietzen, a former campaign lawyer for Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), also happens to be a Coleman campaign supporter who contributed financially to the Republican candidate.

Remember that two of the Minnesota Supreme Court’s seven Justices recused themselves from hearing Coleman’s appeal to the state Supreme Court because they served on the state Canvassing Board. Those two Justices wanted to avoid the conflict of having served on the Canvassing Board and then serving on the Court that will hear an appeal of, in part, the Canvassing Board’s actions and decisions.

Well, one of the remaining Justices that will decide Norm Coleman’s electoral fate is a two-time Norm Coleman donor! Heck, one of the two contributions occurred in the six years leading up to Coleman’s 2008 re-election bid — in other words, it was put toward this very election whose result Coleman is preparing to appeal.

Under the circumstances, I suppose a recusal seems like a reasonable resolution. I’m not sure if it’s an obvious conflict of interest — Dietzen gave Coleman $250 five years ago — but if one of the state Supreme Court justices had donated to Al Franken, I suspect Republicans would ask him or her not to rule on the case, and they’d have a point. (According to Glenn Thrush, “[T]here’s no record of any justice having contributed to Al Franken.”)

I can appreciate the fact that judges are Americans, too, and they may want to participate in the electoral process, just like everyone else. That might mean voting for a candidate, and it might include financial support. When Judge Dietzen backed Coleman in 2004, it probably never occurred to him that he’d be asked to weigh in on Coleman’s election-related lawsuit in 2009.

But here we are, and Dietzen’s support for Coleman’s campaign raises legitimate questions about whether he’s a neutral, objective arbiter on Coleman’s political future.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation