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Justice Paul Thissen, left, and Michelle MacDonald are running for the Minnesota Supreme Court in this year's election.

All eyes are on the U.S. Supreme Court following the death Sept. 18 of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with tension over who will replace her and how that will play into the race for the presidency.

But there’s another Supreme Court race getting a lot less attention, even though it will be on Minnesotans’ ballots in the November election: the race for a seat on the Minnesota Supreme Court. Current Justice Paul Thissen is being challenged by Michelle MacDonald, a controversial lawyer making a fourth bid for a seat on the court.

A sitting Minnesota Supreme Court justice hasn’t lost a judicial election since the 1940s, a history that would suggest Thissen would have very little to worry about in the upcoming contest. But Thissen is waging an unusually active campaign for an incumbent. His campaign committee has raised more than $128,000 this year, and has taken out digital, radio and billboard ads in the pursuit of retaining the seat.

THE INCUMBENT

Thissen is an attorney who long represented Minneapolis as a DFLer in the Minnesota House of Representatives. First elected in 2002, he eventually became Speaker of the House, serving in that role from 2013 to 2015. He made an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2010, dropping out before the primary, and announced a run for governor in 2018 before withdrawing in February of that year. Two months later, he was appointed to the Supreme Court by Gov. Mark Dayton.

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Justice Paul Thissen

Thissen told MinnPost he is now seeking re-election to the court because he enjoys the job.

“The things we look at are things I care about: protecting individual rights, holding the powerful, holding government accountable, making sure we have a system of laws that preserves our democracy,” he said.

He said he sees access to justice, institutional racism and gender inequities as issues that still exist in the court system and as ones that need work. As part of his campaign, Thissen has produced a series of ads on Facebook that discuss how Minnesota Supreme Court cases have affected groups of Minnesotans, such as students, and promote access to lawyers for tenants and Minnesotans sued by debt collectors.

He characterized the Minnesota Supreme Court as a non-ideological one, pointing out that despite having appointees from both DFL and Republican governors, it comes to unanimous decisions about 80 percent of the time.

For more information, visit tinyurl.com/ybydfvan to read Thissen’s Minnesota State Bar Association questionnaire.

THE CHALLENGER

MacDonald has been a lawyer since 1987, and her private practice focuses on family law. She has also worked as a Hennepin County small claims court judge and a civil and family court referee/arbitrator.

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Michelle MacDonald

MacDonald first ran for the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2014 against Justice David Lillehaug, winning 47 percent of the votes to Lillehaug’s 53 percent. In 2016, she challenged Justice Natalie Hudson, winning 41 percent of the vote to Hudson’s 59 percent. In 2018, she ran against Justice Margaret Chutich, winning 44 percent of the vote to Chutich’s 56 percent.

But MacDonald has also been a regular source of controversy in recent years. In 2016, she was a central player in the case of Sandra Grazzini-Rucki, representing the Lakeville mom convicted of six felonies for hiding her daughters from their father for more than two years.

In 2018, the Minnesota Supreme Court suspended MacDonald’s license for 60 days and put her on supervised probation for two years based on a referee’s recommendation, stemming from her representation of Grazzini-Rucki, including making unsubstantiated claims about a judge’s integrity and impartiality. (The referee also recommended a mental health evaluation, which the court declined to impose.)

In March, the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility, which oversees attorney licensing in Minnesota, filed a petition seeking sanctions against MacDonald based on allegations including repeating prior misconduct in making “knowingly false” comments about a judge, and filing what it called a “factually frivolous” defamation lawsuit against Michael Brodkorb, a former political operative who writes about the Grazzini-Rucki case, and his co-author. Earlier this month, MacDonald appeared in a hearing on the matter in front of a Supreme Court referee, who has until Oct. 20 to make a recommendation to the court, according to Minnesota Lawyer.

MacDonald told MinnPost her conduct, including filing a lawsuit against a judge, was in pursuit of civil rights for families.

“Basically, my premise was to one degree or another, judges and courts are depriving us of our liberties with our children and our property,” she said.

MacDonald described herself as an originalist — someone who believes in interpreting the Constitution as it was written.

“The Constitution didn’t get invented to give us rights — oh let’s look at the Constitution, see what rights we have,” she said. “The Constitution actually was created to preserve our rights that we already have, fundamentally by being born on this earth.”

But she said she’s running because she wants to see reform of the judicial system.

“We need to implement some restorative justice circles in the system, make it a more restorative system rather than a retributive system,” she said.

For more information, visit tinyurl.com/yanp7ubu to read MacDonald’s Minnesota State Bar questionnaire.

MinnPost is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization whose mission is to provide high-quality journalism for people who care about Minnesota. This story has been edited for length.

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