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WER June 2020 Feature 3
Volume LXX, Issue IV

Published June 11, 2020

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Diversity in the Walz Administration: Commission on Judicial Selection

By: Lola Velazquez-Aguilu & Molly Hough

Lola Velazquez-Aguilu is a Litigation and Investigations Counsel at Medtronic.  At Medtronic, Lola manages a broad range of civil litigation including securities, tax, and products liability, and she conducts internal investigations.  Lola also serves as a member of the Legal Department’s Diversity and Inclusion Council.  In 2019, Governor Tim Walz appointed Lola to serve as Chair of the Commission on Judicial Selection—a jointly appointed body that oversees the recruitment and recommendation of judicial nominees. 

Molly B. Hough is a civil litigation attorney at Bassford Remele, P.A. based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She specializes in complex commercial litigation, employment and labor law/advice, and complex tech personal injury litigation. Molly is a current board member with Minnesota Women Lawyers and is involved in many other community organizations promoting equal justice for all.


Lola Velazquez-Aguilu

 Molly Hough

Lola Velazquez-Aguilu was appointed by Governor Walz as Chair of the Commission on Judicial Selection (the Commission) in January of 2018. For years, Ms. Velazquez-Aguilu has worked with a variety of organizations within the bar to support efforts to diversify the bench. Her passion for this work stemmed from her initial frustration during the early years of the Dayton administration when, contrary to her hopes and expectations for the new administration, several highly qualified diverse candidates were passed over for judicial appointment. Achieving progress has come down to several things: (1) diversifying the Commission; (2) increasing transparency about the process for becoming a judge; and (3) actively recruiting diverse talent, who all too often count themselves out; and (4) improving the process for selection by eliminating the historic barriers experienced by diverse candidates.

Since starting her role as Chair of the Commission, Velazquez-Aguilu has kept these objectives in mind, focusing the Commission’s efforts and processes on giving every candidate an equal opportunity. For this article, MWL had the opportunity to learn about work the Commission has done to ensure a fair process, and the things that every prospective applicant should know, and do, to best position him/her/themself for success.

Soon after the commissioners were appointed, Velazquez-Aguilu worked with the Governor’s office to conduct comprehensive bias training for the Commissioners.  Velazquez-Aguilu felt it was important to establish a foundation for the Commission’s work wherein every member of the Commission took the time to examine their own biases and understand how those biases could affect their interactions with, and observations of, judicial candidates. One of the Commission’s jobs is to conduct due diligence on each judicial candidate, which requires the commissioners to engage with members of the legal community to ask for opinions about a candidate’s past work and ability to serve. Velazquez-Aguilu explained that this is a process that without care and caution, could easily be impacted by bias. Velazquez-Aguilu explained that Commissioners were asked to consider how bias might influence who they reach out to and could thereby narrow the perspectives the Commission considers. To that end, commissioners are asked to contact a diverse cross-section of individuals. Understanding that the information being relayed to the Commission is also impacted by bias, Velazquez-Aguilu has stressed to the Commission the need to ensure that any information shared with the Commission be specific, detailed, and capable of verification. Without this kind of detail, Velazquez-Aguilu explained, there is no way for the Commission to know whether someone’s opinion of a candidate is based on bias or on fact.

The Commission has also moved to a structured interview format, wherein each applicant is asked the same set of questions. Before each interview, the commissioners outline the experience, characteristics, and qualifications they seek. Then they craft questions designed to evaluate whether the candidates meet those criteria . There are instances where a candidate may have a specific issue that needs to be addressed, for example a negative report arising from the Commission's investigation, or a gap in the applicant's work experience. In these instances, the commissioners will craft a question that gets at the issue and that can be asked of all applicants.

To further the Commission’s goal of recruiting the best and the brightest, the Commission has maintained strong relationships with all of the affinity bar organizations, and has participated in several training sessions to educate the bar on the current judicial selection process and to encourage interested applicants to apply. If you are interested in applying for the bench, here are some things Velazquez-Aguilu recommends:

Tell the Commission your full story. Draft a strong cover letter and include diverse letters of recommendation. Be strategic and think critically about who is writing letters on your behalf. If you only include recommendations from colleagues, the Commission will only get a small picture from the same universe of people with similar opinions about who you are. In order for the Commission to understand who you are and what you have accomplished, Velazquez-Aguilu says you must solicit letters from people who can speak to the various aspects of your career and life. When you sit down to make a list of potential letter writers, consider opposing counsel, judges you have appeared before, people you have worked with in the community, and then step back and ask if there are voices missing from that list.

Research the position. It is vitally important that you understand the specific needs of the position you are applying for—especially because the Commission will start its process with this step. Even if you have worked in the district for a long time, this step should not be overlooked. Speak to the judges in your district and ask them good questions that will get to the heart of what the job is like and what is needed from a judge in that district. Taking these steps will demonstrate to the Commission that you have thought critically about what your district requires and how you will serve those unique and specific needs.

Anticipate the Commission's due diligence. As you consider whether to apply for a position, Velazquez-Aguilu recommends that you reach out to the universe of people the Commission would likely contact. According to Velazquez-Aguilu, understanding this information is key to evaluating whether you are ready to serve and what issues may be out there that you will need to address. For example, if an opposing counsel gives you negative feedback, consider soliciting letter(s) from other opposing counsel indicating support. One of the other benefits to this exercise, Velazquez-Aguilu notes, is that to the extent bias influences the way someone is thinking about you, having a positive and more recent conversation with you can remind them of your positive attributes, and may allow you to remind or inform them of the context that influenced the prior interaction.

Study the application. As soon as you know that you want to apply to be a judge, review the application so you know all that will be asked of you. Additionally, be sure to properly complete the whole application, including complete contact information for everyone listed therein and supplemental responses if necessary. And be sure to put time and care into your cover letter. Make the most of this opportunity to tell the Commission who you are and why you want to serve.

Prepare for the interview.. For many people coming before the Commission, it has been a long time since they last interviewed and as with any skill, interviewing skills get rusty without practice. In light of this, Velazquez-Aguilu strongly recommends that applicants reach out to individuals who have interviewed with the Commission in the past, and participate in mock interviews. The Commission interview is only fifteen minutes long. Answering the questions concisely and completely requires practice and preparation.

Finally, Velazquez-Aguilu encourages applicants to reach out to members of the Commission—so long as there is no current vacancy. The commissioners are very generous with their time and are happy to meet with prospective applicants to discuss the process, the questions they tend to ask, and the things that set successful applicants apart from the rest of the pool. Likewise, if you have previously applied but did not succeed, commissioners are happy to provide feedback and suggestions for the next time. 

 

 



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