Clerkships, Election Law, Politics, State Judges, Weirdness

Looking for a Job? Wanna Be a Minnesota Judge?
Some updates in the bizarre MN judgeship situation.

Yesterday we broke the story of a strange situation concerning a Minnesota judicial race. Judge Thomas G. Armstrong (10th District Court 3), a 30-year veteran of the bench, filed to run for reelection last month. Unsurprisingly, the longtime judge was initially unopposed.

Hours before the filing deadline — which fell on Tuesday, June 1, at 5 p.m. — his law clerk, Dawn Hennessy, jumped into the race. Shortly thereafter, Judge Armstrong withdrew. This left his clerk running unopposed, with the filing deadline for other challengers elapsed.

Whispering in Minnesota legal circles ensued. Observers wondered: Did Judge Armstrong and Dawn Hennessy collude to place her on the bench? We started investigating the story yesterday, with phone calls and emails to both Judge Armstrong and Hennessy. A few hours after we started poking around, Hennessy withdrew from the race — leaving no contenders for the seat.

Since yesterday, there have been some developments — including the reopening of the race….

The Pioneer Press reports:

Election officials have reopened the filing period for a judge’s seat in Washington County, following Thursday’s scramble to determine how to handle a vacancy….

“During the withdrawal period, both candidates withdrew their candidacies leaving no candidates in the race,” the Secretary of State’s office said in a statement. “Their withdrawals created a vacancy in nomination for the seat according to (the law).”

Candidates must circulate petitions and gather at least 500 signatures from voters in the 10th Judicial District….

This doesn’t sound so onerous. If you’re a Minnesota lawyer interested in running for the judgeship, there are more details about the petition procedure in the Pioneer Press.

The Press also passes along comment from Hennessy on the situation:

Despite speculation that the two had concocted a plan to get Hennessy elected, she maintains that this was no cloak and dagger scheme. She said she withdrew from the race without talking to Armstrong about it.

“I was pretty upset at how things were being perceived,” Hennessy wrote in an e-mail to the Pioneer Press. “I knew the Judge was retiring when his court reporter handed me a copy of the letter he sent to the governor on Wednesday,” she added.

An earlier Pioneer Press piece cited more extensively from Hennessy’s email:

“My filing was done with the most honest and honorable intentions,” Hennessy wrote. “I, personally, was thinking the most positive things when I filed, that I knew the job, knew the files and had worked here for years, and I wasn’t thinking anything dishonest or that anyone would even think collusion or dishonesty about it.”

Well, Your Wildness, can you blame people for the water-cooler talk? If you first learned that Judge Armstrong was retiring on Wednesday, June 2, it meant that when you filed to run on Tuesday, June 1, you were filing to run against your longtime boss — someone you’ve worked for since December 2000, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Doesn’t that seem a little unusual — a clerk challenging her boss of almost 10 years for the judicial seat he occupies? Doesn’t the “conspiracy theory” make more sense? Occam’s Razor, baby.

As for her own abrupt withdrawal from the race, Hennessy had this to say:

“I don’t want people to think this was tainted or dishonest or any collusion occurred,” Hennessy wrote in an e-mail to the Pioneer Press. “If people believe this, then my honest intentions really don’t matter, and I therefore withdrew this afternoon.”

Hmm…. This sounds overly defensive, in a “consciousness of guilt” sort of way. Why not remain in the race and say that (1) you didn’t do anything wrong and have no intention of withdrawing, and (2) if anyone else wanted to challenge Judge Armstrong, they should have filed to run against him just like you did?

In fairness to Hennessy, we don’t completely rule out an innocent explanation — like the one offered by a commenter on our original post:

Too bad this came down like this. I know the players involved in this mess and while I must admit it looks odd on the surface, there was nothing really sinister going on here.

This judge was on the cusp of deciding to retire anyhow, but couldn’t make up his mind, and so he filed. A sitting judge is usually a slam dunk for re-election and no one had the cojones to run against him (at least not other attorney buddies, because you just don’t do that). I’d be willing to bet that had Armstrong stayed in the race and won re-election he would have retired within a year leaving a vacancy. Hennessy filed on a whim without a lot of forethought (probably not the best way to approach a Judgeship). but it is what it is. Truth be told, I’ll venture that Hennessy was doing the brunt of the work for the last 3 years, anyhow. So Armstrong was the Judge by title and Hennessy was the judge by default. By the way, the “wildgirl” was and is one of the biggest fans the Minnesota Wild NHL team has ever had. She is a fanatical fan!

In any case, sometimes there is dirt to be found and sometimes there isn’t. In this case there wasn’t, but it sure made for interesting conspiracy talk. In the end we will never know what kind of Judge Hennessy would have been. Too bad. It’s also too bad that other attorneys that “might” have been interested in running didn’t file for fear of breaking the “old boy club” rules.

This sounds possible — but if this what actually happened, then perhaps Hennessy shouldn’t have used her “inside information” about Judge Armstrong’s waffling to make an eleventh-hour filing of her own. She should have watched her boss file to run (unopposed), watched him withdraw from the race, and then filed to run in the open race herself, along with everyone else. That would have put everyone on equal footing.

Anyway, to those of you out there who think that the Midwest is “boring” and that everyone there is so “nice,” take this craziness as evidence to the contrary.

P.S. We’ve named and linked to the news outlets that we relied upon in writing this story (see below). We would appreciate it if they would, in the future, return the courtesy — which they neglected to do in their initial coverage of this story, broken by Above the Law.

UPDATE (5:20 PM): The Minnesota Lawyer Blog claims to have broken this story. Their June 3 post conveniently has no time stamp (just a date stamp), we didn’t see it until after ours, it didn’t come up when we did a Google News search immediately before we published our post, and the first comment on it appeared at 2:58 p.m., which was after our post was published (at 1:51 p.m. Eastern time). But we’ll take their word for it. Congrats, guys!

UPDATE (5:45 PM): Okay, I apologize for that last update. In all seriousness, I do believe that MinnLawyer got to this story first. As I just said on Twitter, “I’m feeling a little bi*chy this afternoon; maybe it’s time for me to step away from the computer and start my weekend.”

Filing period reopened for Washington County judge’s seat [Pioneer Press]
Washington County / Judge’s seat left with no candidate [Pioneer Press]
Judge candidates swap, then drop spots on ballot [Minneapolis Star-Tribune]
Maneuvering by judge, clerk leaves ballot blank [Associated Press]
Judicial election intrigue leaves ballot blank in Stillwater [Minnesota Public Radio]

Earlier: Did a Minnesota judge and his law clerk attempt to collude to put a clerk on the bench?

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