Report to the Community

The 2017 Annual Report of the Minnesota Judicial Branch
A collection of images from events accross the Minesota Judicial Branch in 2017

Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea
Dear fellow Minnesotans,

On behalf of the judges and staff of the Minnesota Judicial Branch, I am pleased to present the 2017 Annual Report to the Community. This report is designed to give you an in-depth look at the work we have undertaken in the past year to improve the work of our courts and expand access to justice in our state.

Minnesota’s Constitution promises every person in our state the right “to obtain justice freely…promptly and without delay.” Every day, the judges and staff of the Minnesota Judicial Branch strive to uphold that promise while working to ensure the public’s trust and confidence in our courts.

The pages that follow will detail the many ways the Judicial Branch worked in 2017 to ensure fair and timely access to justice, increase the efficiency and effectiveness of court operations, and improve outcomes for those who enter our justice system. This includes:
  • Building on our successful transition to electronic court records by embracing smart reengineering of our court processes;
  • Expanding our nation-leading efforts to provide help and support to people who choose to represent themselves in court proceedings;
  • Enhancing the security of our courthouses, to ensure Minnesotans can feel safe when accessing their justice system; and
  • Launching livestreaming of the Supreme Court’s oral arguments, to give more Minnesotans the opportunity to see the work of Minnesota’s highest court.
I am proud of the many achievements our employees and judges have reached in the past year. As we head into a new year, we remain committed to our mission to provide equal access for the timely resolution of cases and controversies. I hope you find this report informative and useful.

Sincerely,
Lorie S. Gildea
Chief Justice
Minnesota Supreme Court

The Judicial Branch Mission

To provide justice through a system that assures equal access for the fair and timely resolution of cases and controversies.

 

Judicial Branch Overview

There are three levels of court in Minnesota: district courts, the Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court. District courts are located in each of the state’s 87 counties and are divided among 10 judicial districts for administration purposes.

The Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court is the administrative head of the Judicial Branch and responsible for its overall management. The Chief Justice chairs the Minnesota Judicial Council, the administrative, policy-making body for the Judicial Branch.

The State Court Administrator’s Office serves as staff to the Judicial Council and provides central administrative infrastructure services to the entire Judicial Branch, including human resources, finance, legal research, information technology, communications, statewide program management, and research and evaluation services.

The Chief Justice leads the Supreme Court, which, in addition to resolving the cases that come before the Court, has the responsibility for regulating the practice of law and for the promulgation of statewide rules of procedure and practice for all courts of the state. There are seven justices on the Supreme Court.

There is a chief judge of the Court of Appeals, appointed by the governor for a three-year term who serves as the head of that Court. There are 19 judges on the Court of Appeals.

One district court judge in each judicial district is elected as a chief judge by the bench for a two-year term, and is responsible for the management of the entire judicial district. The chief judge is assisted by a judicial district administrator. The district courts are served by 293 district court judges, 23 referees, and 28 child support magistrates.

There are 106 Judicial Branch hearing facilities across Minnesota.
 

Judicial Branch FY2018 Budget

District (Trial) Courts: $294,978,000
Court of Appeals:  $12,470,000
Supreme Court/State Court Administration/State Law Library: $38,011,000
Total:  $345,459,000

Minnesota Judicial Council
 
Chief Judges
Chief Judge Kathryn Davis Messerich

Chief Judge Kathryn Davis Messerich First Judicial District
Dakota

Chief Judge John H. Guthmann

Chief Judge John H. Guthmann Second Judicial District
Ramsey

Chief Judge Jodi L. Williamson

Chief Judge Jodi L. Williamson Third Judicial District
Dodge

Chief Judge Ivy S. Bernhardson

Chief Judge Ivy S. Bernhardson Fourth Judicial District
Hennepin

Chief Judge Michelle A. Dietrich

Chief Judge Michelle A. Dietrich Fifth Judicial District
Lyon

Chief Judge Sally L. Tarnowski

Chief Judge Sally L. Tarnowski Sixth Judicial District
St. Louis

Chief Judge Jay D. Carlson

Chief Judge Jay D. Carlson Seventh Judicial District
Becker

Chief Judge Dwayne N. Knutsen

Chief Judge Dwayne N. Knutsen Eighth Judicial District
Yellow Medicine

Chief Judge Paul T. Benshoof

Chief Judge Paul T. Benshoof Ninth Judicial District
Beltrami

Chief Judge Douglas B. Meslow

Chief Judge Douglas B. Meslow Tenth Judicial District
Washington

Reengineering is the natural extension of eCourtMN.

Through reengineering, we are taking the new technologies of eCourtMN, and utilizing them to make our courts more responsive to the needs of our customers.

We are strengthening our court system by making them more cohesive and more unified.

By taking a fresh look at how we do our work, we are implementing new efficiencies that will not only enhance our service to the public, but will also make our courts more resilient to the challenges and changes that lie ahead.

State Court Administrator Jeff Shorba
 
In 2012, the Minnesota Judicial Branch launched what would become known as the largest transformation in the 150-year history of the state’s court system. Through the eCourtMN initiative, Minnesota transitioned from paper-based court files towards an all-electronic case record, including eFiling, expanded access to court records, and electronic information-sharing within the justice system.

With the infrastructure of eCourtMN largely in place, in 2017, the Minnesota Judicial Branch began exploring new ways to leverage the technologies of eCourtMN to enhance its service to the public. Having removed the limitations of working with paper-based court records, the Judicial Branch has been able to explore news ways of doing business, reengineering old business practices to make court services faster and more convenient. These reengineering efforts – many of which are highlighted below – have been focused on offering court users high-quality, consistent, and convenient service, no matter which courthouse in the state they visit.


Ensuring Statewide Court Services

The Minnesota Judicial Branch is charged with ensuring access to justice for all Minnesotans, and maintains court operations in 106 locations across the state – more locations than any other part of state government. But the scope of work of Minnesota’s courts varies considerably from county to county.

Nearly 500,000 cases were filed in Hennepin County District Court in 2016, and those cases were heard by 62 judges, 16 referees, and five child support magistrates, and processed by hundreds of staff. By contrast, in many rural counties court is in session once or twice per week, and judges may hear cases in several different counties in their district in a week. In early 2017, 17 county courthouses had fewer than two full-time employees processing case filings and staffing the customer service windows.

As part of the Judicial Branch’s reengineering efforts, in 2017 the Minnesota Judicial Council approved a plan that relies on flexibility provided by the electronic case record to shift case processing work that used to be done in 87 counties to the state’s lowest-volume courthouses. Through this effort, each courthouse in the state now has enough case processing work to ensure the presence of two full-time staff, meaning public service windows will remain open and available five days a week in even the most rural county courthouses.

Highlights of the plan include:
  • Lincoln and Pipestone County Courthouses
    Moving the Minnesota Judicial Branch Central Appeals Unit (CAU) from the Fourth Judicial District (Hennepin County) to the district courts in Lincoln and Pipestone counties. The CAU serves as a liaison between the state’s 87 trial courts and two appellate courts, preparing a comprehensive file of relevant district court documents and exhibits to send to the Court of Appeals or the Minnesota Supreme Court when a case is appealed.
  • The work of processing expedited child support orders from all 87 district courts is now centralized among a group of specialized staff working in Minnesota’s Eighth Judicial District in western Minnesota.
  • Staff in the Ninth Judicial District in northwest Minnesota have assumed the work related to jury qualification and summoning for all 87 district courts.

Statewide Collaboration and Staff Specialization

The eCourtMN initiative has also made it easier for Minnesota’s 10 judicial districts and 87 district courts to share work across boundaries.

For example, the Sixth Judicial District has centralized many of the functions that used to be donein six different courthouses across four counties in the Arrowhead region. The District now features a centralized copy center, specialized staff handling the acceptance of eFiled documents, and specialized staff processing all probate and minor civil case work for the District. The Sixth District has even taken on the work of processing default judgment casework from Hennepin County, a great step forward in cross-district collaboration.

All 10 of Minnesota’s judicial districts are engaging in similar efforts to increase efficiency by centralizing and regionalizing case processing work that used to be spread across multiple counties. This includes a statewide effort to specialize the work of reviewing eFiled documents as they are received by the court and ensuring they are correctly classified so that public information is made available to the public, and private and sensitive data is kept confidential. By shifting this statewide work to specialized staff experts, the Judicial Branch is working to speed up the process of reviewing and accepting eFiled documents for court users, while ensuring the proper safeguards are in place to protect Minnesotans’ private information.
 

Increasing the Statewide Consistency of Court Operations

For most of Minnesota history, the state’s trial courts were county-funded and county-operated, and court users working between different court locations could experience significant differences in service between courthouses.

By the mid-2000s, Minnesota had transitioned to a state-funded, unified trial court system. While this transition reduced some of the variance between district courts, some local practices and customs remained.

As a statewide entity serving all 87 counties, the Minnesota Judicial Branch recognizes that bringing greater consistency to statewide court operations is critical to improving the customer experience for court users. As part of the post-eCourt reengineering work, leaders from all 10 judicial districts in Minnesota agreed to work collaboratively on an initiative to standardize many case processing procedures between all 87 district courts in the state. Ultimately, this effort should significantly reduce the differences court users may experience when working in different courthouses.


Looking Ahead

The work that was undertaken in 2017 is just the first step of the reengineering the Judicial Branch aims to accomplish in the post-eCourtMN world. The Judicial Branch has established a statewide steering committee of judges and court staff charged with exploring new opportunities for smart reengineering of court operations, all with the goal of making Minnesota’s court system consistent, convenient, and focused on meeting the needs of court users across the state.
Minnesota Judicial Branch Strategic Plan

Every two years, the Minnesota Judicial Council directs a comprehensive strategic planning process that defines the Judicial Branch’s major goals for the upcoming biennium, and creates an operational roadmap to achieve those goals. The Minnesota Judicial Branch’s major goals for the current FY2018-19 Strategic Plan are as follows:

  • Access to Justice: A justice system that is open, affordable, understandable, and provides appropriate levels of service to all users.
  • Administering Justice for Effective Results: Adopting approaches and processes for the resolution of cases that enhance the outcomes for individual participants and the public.
  • Public Trust, Accountability, and Impartiality: A justice system that engenders public trust and confidence through impartial decision-making and accountability for the use of public resources.

Key Initiatives

The links below provide a detailed look at the many initiatives the Judicial Branch undertook in 2017 in support of those strategic goals:
 
  • Access to Justice
    Initiatives include: eCourtMN, support for self-represented litigants, improved courthouse security, and more.
     
  • Administering Justice for Effective Results
    Initiatives include: Minnesota’s treatment court programs, efforts to improve the pretrial release process, and the use of Early Case Management and Early Neutral Evaluation.
     
  • Public Trust, Accountability, and Impartiality
    Initiatives include: The Supreme Court’s traveling oral arguments program, “open courthouse” events, Law Day and Constitution Day celebrations, the expanded use of cameras and other recording devices in Minnesota’s district courts, and more.
District Courts
293 Judgeships, 10 Judicial Districts, 106 hearing facilities across the state
Jurisdiction: Civil Actions, Criminal Cases, Family, Juvenile, Probate, Violations of City Ordinances
Appeals from: Conciliation Court*
Conciliation Division: Civil Disputes up to $15,000
*Called trial de novo - actually a new trial, not just a review of the conciliation court
The links below detail the work of the Appellate Courts in 2017.

Supreme Court
Court of Appeals
Clerk of the Appellate Court
Working under the direction of the Judicial Council, the State Court Administrator's Office (SCAO) provides leadership and direction for the effective operations of the Minnesota Judicial Branch, as well as central administrative infrastructure services.

A Letter from the State Court Administrator

The State Court Administrator’s Office is organized into an Executive Office and six divisions:

Court Services provides leadership and technical assistance, and education and training to court staff, judges, and justice partners on a wide variety of topics, including: court administrative procedure, the Court Interpreter Program, expedited child support, the Children’s Justice Initiative, treatment courts, psychological services, jury management, self-represented litigant services, the Minnesota Court Payment Center, and research and evaluation.

Information Technology provides technical services including: development of applications, procurement and management of purchased software, network services such as e-mail and file sharing, web development and hosting, integrations with the courts’ business partners, and installation and maintenance of personal computers.

Finance manages payroll, contracts, reimbursements, budget requests, receipts, and grants, and provides financial training and guidance to Judicial Branch leadership and staff.

Human Resources and Development provides HR services and oversees all education and development efforts for judges, management, and employees.

Legal Counsel provides research, legal advice, and training for judges, court managers, and court staff.

The Court Information Office is the communications, public affairs, and media relations division of the Minnesota Judicial Branch.

Through the work of these divisions, the State Court Administrator plans for statewide Judicial Branch needs, develops and promotes statewide administrative practices and procedures, oversees the operation of statewide court programs and strategic initiatives, and serves as a liaison with other branches of government.
Minnesota Law Library Logo
The Minnesota State Law Library, which is located on the ground floor of the Minnesota Judicial Center in St. Paul, provides legal information to the courts, attorneys, self-represented litigants, and the general public on a statewide basis. The Library supports the legal research needs of the appellate and district courts, and serves as the archive for the Minnesota Judicial Branch.

Library staff assist attorneys and the public in finding legal materials via e-mail, phone, live chat, and in person. In 2017, Library staff answered more than 7,500 questions.

Additionally, more than 2,500 people visited the Library and utilized its resources without requiring Library staff assistance. The Library’s collection includes state and federal laws, legal treatises, practice materials, and self-help materials. In addition, patrons can use public computers, current awareness materials, and online legal research resources such as Westlaw. The State Law Library also provides access to trial court and appellate court documents from its public terminals.

The State Law Library has two free clinics for people seeking advice on appeals. The Library hosts a clinic for people seeking to appeal a denial of unemployment benefits to the Court of Appeals. In 2017, the clinic assisted 37 people with their unemployment appeals. In January 2016, the Library opened an Appeals Self-Help Clinic for most other types of appeals. During 2017 the attorney volunteers met with 143 people.

In April 2017, the Law Library began offering legal reference service in some St. Paul Public Library branches. The response from the public has been very positive. With this service, the State Law Library is able get into the community and reach people who don’t know about the Library, or don’t know it is open to everyone.

Through a collaboration with the Minnesota Department of Corrections, the State Law Library also provides legal resources to inmates of the state prisons. The Law Library Service to Prisoners librarians meet monthly with inmates at each of the eight primary correctional facilities in Minnesota. Most inmate requests are received and answered by mail, using the resources of the State Law Library. In 2017, the Library answered more than 36,000 requests. The program expenses are funded by inmate canteen and phone service fees, and are not paid for by Minnesota taxpayers.

In addition, the State Law Library provides assistance and advice to county law libraries located throughout the state. It provides training to county law library staff and regularly answers questions about collection development, budget issues, and staffing.