On Wednesday, Sept. 19, St. Olaf celebrated Constitution Day by inviting Judge David Minge ’64 to speak in Viking Theater. Minge, a distinguished St. Olaf alumnus, served as a member of Congress for Minnesota’s second congressional district, and was later appointed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals by Gov. Jesse Ventura. Minge will be returning to St. Olaf in the spring to teach a course on constitutional law.
Constitution Day is officially celebrated on Sept. 17, because on that day in 1787 the Constitutional Convention concluded and the delegates returned to their states to begin the ratification process. Federal law requires that all academic institutions that receive federal funds, including St. Olaf, use the holiday to educate students about the Constitution and its history.
Minge’s talk centered on modern threats to the impartiality and independence of the judiciary. To help illustrate these threats, Minge used baseball umpires as a metaphor. In order for umpires to be effective, Minge explained, they cannot be indebted to any team. Baseball teams cannot pay the umpires or have any control over an umpire’s future in the business. Either of these conditions would create a conflict of interest.
In the judiciary, this conflict of interest issue can arise depending on how judges are recruited and retained. In Minnesota, state judges are technically elected. In practice, however, Minge says that 90 percent end up being appointed by the governor. This can happen because judge openings usually occur far enough away from the election period to trigger the appointment process.
Minnesota governors usually appoint judges based on a list of names given to them by the Merit Judicial Selection Commission. This commission was set up by another St. Olaf alumnus, former Gov. Al Quie ’50, in order to ensure that these appointments did not become a political favor to be handed out to allies. Assuring the continued use of this commission, Minge concluded, was the only way that Minnesota could continue to avoid the increasingly partisan judicial elections that plague so many other states in the nation.
In a short interview after the conclusion of his speech, Judge Minge explained why he has decided to come out of retirement to teach at St. Olaf this coming spring. As it turns out, Professor Doug Casson in the political science department had invited Minge to St. Olaf as a guest lecturer last year, and Minge was so impressed with how prepared the students were that he jumped at the opportunity to take over the class while Casson is on sabbatical next semester.
Minge also offered advice to students who might be interested in entering politics, recommending that students get some experience in politics before they graduate, either by volunteering for a campaign or interning in an office.
He suggested that, after graduation, students look for a job in their community that gives them experience on issues that arise outside of the government. According to Minge, the public and private sector experience to be gained from these opportunities would be extremely beneficial to students seeking elected or appointed office.
When asked whether he got more enjoyment out of being a judge or a member of Congress, Minge said that he did not particularly prefer one over the other; he had distinct experiences in each.
He described his time in Congress as “fascinating” and “rare” due to the demanding schedule and constant change in issues. His time as a judge, however, was very different. Minge said that the exposure he gained to the problems that American families face as they simply try to live was a “sobering” experience.
“As a judge, your daily diet is people who are violently disagreeing with each other. And, that’s not always people at their best,” Minge said.
Minge’s spring course, Constitutional Law, is a 200 level political science course. According to the description it will focus on debates over civil rights and civil liberties.
For political science majors and non-majors alike, Constitutional Law will provide students with both background and context for understanding the laws that govern them.
In addition to his passion for the judiciary system, Minge made clear to the attendees of the talk that education is dear to his heart as well. He will be a welcome guest on the Hill come spring.