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Chief Justice Calls on Criminal Justice Professionals to Help Preserve Minnesota's Justice System

Posted: Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea delivered the keynote address on Monday, Aug. 23 to the Criminal Justice Institute, an educational conference for lawyers involved in criminal justice matters.  Her remarks are reprinted below.     

Thank you....For that kind introduction. 

Good morning.  It's great to be here with you today, my friends and colleagues in Minnesota's justice system.  I've only been your chief justice since July 1, but I have been among you as a litigator, a prosecutor, a trial court judge, and an appellate judge for more than 20 years.  I am proud to be with you today, and to stand with you as part of a justice system that is respected throughout our state and our country for its professionalism, its innovative spirit, and its commitment to fairness for all, regardless of their gender, their race, or their income.  I have lived in other places and I do not subscribe to the notion that we can not talk about the exceptionalism of our state.  Minnesota is exceptional and so is our justice system. 

I want to do two things in my remarks this morning.  First, I will tell you what I need, and second, I will make the case. 

First, what do I need?  I need your help.  I ask you to help me communicate to the five million constituents of our justice system - the people of Minnesota - help me communicate the message that the justice system belongs to them, and that they have a stake in ensuring that the system is adequately funded.  We must carry the simple and straightforward message that the courts are a core government function. 

The courts are where the people come when the things that are most important to them - their family, their freedom, their property - the things they treasure most, are threatened.  They come to us, and they come looking for justice.  We must help our fellow citizens see that the justice system is at the heart of what our founders meant when they wrote in our state constitution that:   "Government is instituted for the security, benefit and protection of the people."1  The reason the justice system is one of the first promises made in our constitution is that we are essential to preserving our democracy, securing the rule of law, and ensuring the public safety.

Now, it is no secret that the financial crisis impacting state government and our economy is considerable.  We're going to have to work together to be able to successfully compete for scarce public dollars.  It will take all of us to educate Minnesotans about the dire consequences to their communities if the justice system is allowed to slow to a crawl because it doesn't have enough judges or court staff or public defenders or legal aid attorneys or prosecutors or law enforcement officers. 

Many of you worked diligently last year and the year before to spread that message.  We will not only need to repeat that effort this year, we will need to redouble it.  Much of the public isn't in a mood to hear about the need to provide adequate funding for government.  In a Rasmussen Reports poll released last month only 19 percent of respondents said they would be willing to pay higher taxes to avoid layoffs of state employees and only 37 percent were willing to pay higher taxes for police and firemen in their communities.

It is up to us to help the people see that an insufficiently funded justice system will impact them and their communities directly.  We are on the brink.  If our already overburdened system is further cut, it will begin to break down.  Think about the arrest warrant that doesn't get signed quickly enough, the order for protection that isn't issued, trials that get set into the far distant future, victims forced to wait months and years for resolution, small claims cases taking so long that the process does no good.

We must help the people connect the dots.  Our message is clear - justice is not optional in Minnesota; it is a constitutional obligation and a community imperative.  We must fight this good fight together and draw on each other now.  The justice system works only as well as the parties to it work together.  I grew up in a small town in the northwestern corner of our state; it's called Plummer - 270 people including my mom and dad live there.  It was a wonderful, safe place to grow up and it is never far from my heart.  When you grow up in a small place like I did, you learn very quickly the value of working together, because when you live in a small town, everybody works or nothing does.  But I have found that this shared experience, communal work ethic, and pride in making our corner of the world a little better for each other is not just a small town value; it can be felt throughout Minnesota, and so I know that when the call goes out, you will answer because that is what Minnesotans do. 

Now this gets me to my second part and here is where I will help you make our case to the five million constituents of Minnesota's justice system; we will make our case that we are spending wisely the tax dollars we are given now and that the system must continue to be funded adequately.  To make the case, I want to do what courtroom lawyers do; I want to arm you with some evidence.  I was a courtroom lawyer for 20 years before I became a judge.  Many of you in this room are courtroom lawyers; we deal in evidence, we look for it and we follow it and we go where it takes us. 

Let me give you the evidence that I think proves the case that the justice system has been a good steward of the public funds.  This matters because many of our citizens are not hungry for more government; but they all demand good government and the justice system is good government.  Let me tell you why and show you how.   

The first piece of evidence relates to our technological advances.  It's a Google and Amazon.com world, and the public expects us to make the justice system more connected and effective.  And we're doing that.  We're making these advances because it is these innovations and the savings and efficiencies they can bring that are going to make it possible for us to remain a trusted forum for delivering prompt justice to those accused of breaking the law and for resolving civil disputes.

Many of these innovations are being driven by the realization that the funding pressures on our justice system are not temporary.  The current recession will pass eventually, but when it does a new normal will emerge that will demand that we do more with less funding; that we actually speed up the processing of cases and streamline the interaction between litigants, and between defendants and justice system agencies, and with the courts - and that we do it with fewer people and less resources.  To do that, we need to change many of the ways we do justice in Minnesota.  We are well on our way to doing just that.

Exhibit 1 I would offer is the court's statewide case information system. 

This system has made it possible for us to share case information electronically in real time with law enforcement, corrections, and other justice system agencies.  More than 50,000 data exchanges are occurring each day between Judicial Branch computers and our partners' information systems.  And it is now possible for the public to look up case information through our Website.  More than a million searches were conducted in just the first year.

Exhibit 2 is our award winning on-line Self-Help Center. 

Through this virtual center, we have made it possible for people throughout Minnesota to get help over the Internet from our Website for the most common types of cases, and we have created a statewide call center that can assist people over the phone.  In 2009, the online Self-Help Center received more than 230,000 page views.  In addition, we're operating walk-in help centers in several of our courthouses.  The largest, in Minneapolis, assisted more than 42,000 people with their court business in 2009.

Exhibit 3 is e-citation and e-charging.

With the help of our partners in law enforcement we are moving toward the day when most traffic citations will be typed into a squad car computer, then sent electronically into courthouse computers, which will then automatically create a new case and enter the citation information into the court case records system.  No more handwriting the citation, hand entering the citation information into the law enforcement agency computer, transporting the paper citations to the courthouse, and hand entering the citations into the court records system.  Just think for a minute how much time and money that is going to save, and how many transcription errors it is going to eliminate. 

With our partners in law enforcement we have also begun the implementation of an e-charging service that can significantly reduce the time spent by police, prosecutors, court staff, and judges when initiating a case.  Some of you in this room may already be part of that effort, which is being done in partnership with the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

In 2009, 470,000 criminal and traffic cases were filed electronically.  That number will grow significantly in the coming years as more law enforcement agencies and prosecutors build their connections to our case management system.  And, toward that end, I ask those of you who have not yet transitioned to e-filing to encourage your offices to do so as soon as possible.

Exhibit 4, and perhaps our biggest undertaking, is the centralized processing of more than one million payable citations filed each year in Minnesota.  We are moving the clerical processing of these cases from 87 different counties and methods into one central process.  The culmination of this process is the creation of a central Court Payment Center, and we estimate that this undertaking will save the courts more than $2.7 million a year when fully implemented and allow us to free up more than 50 court staff for other case processing work.  The project will automate much of the data entry and accounting functions involved in processing payments and distributing fee revenue to the state and to municipalities.  It will also provide that overdue fines are automatically referred to our collection vendor for follow-up and collection, a process that we believe will speed up and increase collections of overdue fines.  By October, people statewide will be able to pay their citations online, by phone, or through the mail. 

In a first for us, we are using a "virtual workplace model" as part of this initiative, with the clerical staff working from their homes around the state processing paper and electronic citations and operating a statewide call center.  The call center has a toll free number that people can call with questions and to get directions to the proper court if they want to contest their ticket. 

The bricks and mortar piece of the Court Payment Center is located in Willmar at the Kandiyohi County Courthouse, where accounting staff process all of the payments.  We also have a small management staff housed in St. Paul to support the Center. 

Exhibit 5 is greater utilization of interactive television, or ITV. 

I see from your program that you will be hearing more about ITV later - both the benefits and the challenges - from one of your panels.  For our part, the Supreme Court this year, in response to recommendations from a study committee charged with coming up with ways to make the justice system more efficient, changed the rules to allow greater use of ITV to speed up case processing and reduce travel time for court staff, law enforcement, public defenders, defendants, and litigants, especially in some of our more rural counties. 

I was in Willmar recently and observed while Judge Donald Spilseth conducted a hearing with a defendant who was in Meeker County, who otherwise would have had to be transported to Willmar for a short hearing, then taken back to Litchfield, where he was being held.  Instead of this travel time, the hearing was held via ITV in only a matter of a few minutes.  During that same proceeding, I observed while trained court staff took the record using a digital recording system, a technology we are using more and more to reduce costs and keep court calendars moving, even where a stenographic court reporter is not available. 

Exhibit 6 is our problem-solving courts, another example of rethinking how we do our work.  We have 37 drug and DWI courts around the state and are exploring similar approaches in tackling the thorny problems that underlie much of our caseload: mental health, truancy, domestic violence, and community disputes.  Our most recent effort, a Veterans Court in Hennepin County, is an attempt to help military veterans.

These methods help us get to the root of the issues that bring people into our courtrooms in the first place - which studies suggest reduces recidivism and saves money for all of us and the communities that we serve.

Exhibit 7 is our collaboration.  We have pursued all of the reforms I've been discussing through collaborative approaches that bring partners from other branches and from state agencies into the discussion.  This trend started long before my tenure, with successful collaborations in the areas of child protection and drug courts.  Collaboration has become a hallmark of how the Minnesota judiciary works best, and I intend to continue and even build on that tradition.  Collaboration is what Minnesotans expect and we in the justice system have shown that we know how to do it, and to do it well. 

That is one of the reasons my predecessor established the Criminal Justice Forum in 2008.  With representatives from more than ten key criminal justice organizations across the state - prosecutors, defenders, law enforcement, and state and local government agencies - we reviewed statutes, court rules, practices, and policies to better coordinate case processing and ultimately, improve Minnesota's justice system. 

The Legislature was so impressed with this collaboration that they asked us to convene a Civil Justice Forum.  This group has now issued recommendations for formation of a workgroup to study differentiated case processing - to streamline and better tailor our rules to fit the variety of civil cases that come before our courts.

We could not have implemented any of these cost- and time-saving and system improvement initiatives without the collaboration of our justice system partners.  I intend to continue the collaboration efforts begun by my predecessors, like the Criminal and Civil Justice forums, and I hope to be able to expand them.

Why?  Because we must all work together to be able to make the changes necessary to keep our justice system affordable and accessible, and to maintain the confidence of the people in our commitment and ability to resolve their disputes and adjudicate those accused of crimes in a timely and cost-effective manner.

Ladies and gentlemen, that is the evidence, and from the evidence you can see that we in the justice system are innovators; we are problem-solvers and we are collaborators.  We are necessary government and we are good government.

So I ask you to join me in a grass roots campaign to help our fellow citizens connect the dots between an adequately-funded justice system and the safety and security of their communities.  We need to take our case to the people.  The Coalition to Preserve the MN Justice System will be meeting next month to coordinate our efforts.  I fully expect that you, or someone in your office or organization, will be called on to join a local justice team to meet with your local legislators, newspapers editors, and civic groups to deliver our message that justice is not optional; it is an obligation.

Our united voices and concerted action are needed now more than ever to preserve and protect the vital institution that is our Minnesota justice system. 

Because as Francis Bacon said, "If we do not maintain Justice, Justice will not maintain us."         

Thank you for your service to our justice system and for what I know you will do in the coming months to help preserve it. 


1.    Minn. Const. art. I, § I.