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Judicial Branch Facing Major Service Cuts, Delays

Posted: Friday, September 19, 2008

The Minnesota Judicial Council, the administrative governing body for the state's trial and appellate courts, voted Thursday to submit a $54 million request for additional funding for the FY 2010-2011 biennium.  The money is needed, Council leaders said, to avoid deep staff cuts that will lead to reduction of public services, long delays in case processing, cutting highly successful drug courts, and delaying the introduction of technology improvements that will streamline operations and improve services to the public.

The Judicial Branch is currently operating with a $19 million budget shortfall that has left it nearly 10 percent short-staffed and resulted in the closing of public service windows in three judicial districts for a half-day a week, reductions in drug court funding, and cuts to juror reimbursements and other court services.

If the courts fail to secure additional funding for the next two years, an estimated 261 additional positions would have to be cut. Any reductions in the Judicial Branch budget would result in even deeper staff cuts. The Judicial Branch currently has about 2,900 employees, 315 judges, and processes more than two million cases each year.

"Minnesota has built one of the most respected court systems in the country," said Chief Justice Eric J. Magnuson, "a court system known for its efficiency, its innovation and its professionalism. But fewer people to provide service means less service, which means long delays and less time for the court to consider each case."

"That is a huge problem," Magnuson said.  "People go to court to be heard, win or lose.  Surveys show that even people who do not prevail in court are generally satisfied with their experiences, as long as they think that they have had a fair shake.  Less time per case means less opportunity to be heard and erosion of public confidence in the system.  In other words, we are in the process of losing the benefit of years of hard work building the trust of Minnesotans in the fairness of their courts."

"We recognize that these are hard economic times," Magnuson said. "The situation is tough on the citizens of the entire state, and on all branches of state government.  But the judicial system isn't just another state program. It's the third branch of our democracy that we rely on to ensure the right to a speedy and fair trial for those charged with a crime, resolve difficult business disputes, protect children, serve as a check on the other two branches in the exercise of their powers, and much more."

"The Judicial Branch budget is less than two percent of the overall state budget.  The legislature and the governor must make the justice system a priority.  Individual liberty and property and the safety of our communities demand it.  We truly are at a tipping point.  Further underfunding will have grave consequences as this core function of state government unravels," Magnuson said.

Magnuson said Judicial Branch leaders have been meeting with legislators to present their case, and they plan to meet with Governor Tim Pawlenty in the next few weeks.