ST. PAUL — A Minnesota Supreme Court justice appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton is up for re-election Nov. 3 in a race that will pit him against a perennial candidate for the bench.

Justice Paul Thissen, formerly the speaker of the Minnesota House, is defending the Associate Justice seat he took in 2018 after leaving the Minnesota Legislature, where he spent the prior 16 years.

Challenging him is attorney Michelle MacDonald, whose run marks her fourth overall for the state Supreme Court

The statewide, nonpartisan race will appear on all ballots in Minnesota.

A business litigator turned health care and transactional lawyer, Thissen was first elected to the state Legislature in 2002. His private law career in the ensuing years would take him first to the Minneapolis-based firm Briggs and Morgan and later to Ballard Spahr.

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Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice Paul Thissen
Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice Paul Thissen

Years before he was elected, he clerked for appellate Judge James Loken of the 8th U.S. Circuit and as an appellate lawyer for the State Public Defender's Office. He sought out a higher office later during his tenure in the state Legislature, running for governor twice.

Judges in Minnesota are elected but are more often appointed to fill vacancies by the governor. Such was the case for Thissen when Dayton named him to a seat left open when Justice David Stras departed for the 8th Circuit.

In his response to a Minnesota State Bar Association questionnaire on the upcoming election, Thissen wrote that he wants to be a judge because he cares "deeply about Minnesota’s future."

"The court is the venue where those values are tested and upheld with long-standing consequences for Minnesotans. I’m inspired each day to meet the challenges of the role," he continues.

MacDonald, a long-time family lawyer, served as a Hennepin County Court judge from 1999 to 2014, according to her campaign website.

Michelle MacDonald
Michelle MacDonald

MacDonald positions herself as a candidate running against what she describes as an overzealous judicial branch wielding unchecked power. In recent years, she has clashed both with officials from that branch and other Minnesota lawyers.

She was suspended from practicing law for 60 days and put on a two-year probation period in 2018 because of comments she made about the judge overseeing a controversial child custody case she worked on, one in which she was arrested for contempt of court. The Minnesota Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility, a state Supreme Court agency, recently requested she be suspended again for 90 days for what it calls a "factually frivolous" defamation lawsuit she filed against the author of a book on the case.

In her response to the bar association candidate questionnaire, MacDonald writes that she has witnessed "an unprecedented display of courts abusing their discretion and authority, damaging people and families by their orders" and that she wants to be elected partly to hold judges accountable.

She also favors "restorative justice," an approach that often involves facilitated meetings between the perpetrators of a crime and their victims, and writes that she would encourage it if elected.

Win or lose, Thissen's current term expires Jan. 1, 2021. Though he has an advantage as the incumbent, his campaign appears not to have spared any expense in boosting his profile.

According to filings viewed on the Minnesota Campaign Filing Board, he has spent a little more than $150,000 in his bid for re-election as of last month.

Court of Appeals

In addition to the contested Supreme Court Associate Justice race, four uncontested Court of Appeals seats will be on all Minnesota ballots:

  • Court of Appeals 3: Carol Hooten
  • Court of Appeals 9: Randall J. Slieter
  • Court of Appeals 13: Jeanne Cochran
  • Court of Appeals 15: Kevin G. Ross