Lean Times for Minnesota Courts
Minnesota's budget crisis is requiring cutbacks in the courts and related legal services programs. Both the Bar and the Court are calling on attorneys to support the Court's budget requestand to advise the Court in setting priorities.
by Judson Haverkamp
From the moment it became apparent that Minnesota's downturning economy would force the Revenue Department to scale back its projections of tax revenue, concerns were voiced regarding the impact on Minnesota courts and related legal services programs.
Communications from the courts, the MSBA leadership, and other sources make clear that the budget situation facing the courts is grave and jeopardizes a broad range of essential services.
Governor Pawlenty's budget as proposed to the Legislature calls for a 10 percent cut to the courts' budget, a 15 percent cut in the public defender budget, and a 10 percent cut in legal aid for the next biennium. MSBA President Jon Duckstad noted in a letter to members that a 10 percent cut in the courts' budget "translates into as much as a 30 percent cut to court staff."
Minnesota courts have already absorbed a voluntary cutback of nearly $5.8 million in funding for the period through June 2003 to help overcome a projected state deficit of $356 million for the current fiscal year.
Faced with such cutbacks and the reduction in services they imply, leaders of the legal profession have urged that, in the words of 4th District Chief Judge Kevin Burke, "our profession must, like never before, become engaged in the legislative process," both in supporting funding for the courts and in making "the kind of painful but necessary changes we must make."
Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz presented the Court's budget to the Legislature in February, acknowledging the budgetary crisis facing the state and the need for all to share in the solution. Nevertheless, she noted, the judicial branch has compelling reasons to propose "a budget increase rather than a budget reduction in this time of retrenchment."
The chief justice cited two broad reasons for requesting a funding increase: 1) the large and growing civil and criminal caseload and 2) the Court's ongoing initiatives in response to state and federal mandates for change.
A recent study by the Minnesota State Auditor determined that Minnesota judges' caseloads already are 49 percent higher than those of judges in comparable states. The courts are experiencing an 11 percent increase in caseloads. History suggests that caseloads rise as the economy declines, so Minnesota courts and legal services likely will face increased demand even as they must cope with reduced funding.
As Chief Justice Blatz noted in her message to the Legislature, the courts have little choice when it comes to their workload: "Our workload is dictated by the will of prosecutors enforcing state and local laws, the desires of citizens and businesses for redress and the needs of children and other vulnerable citizens for protection. All resources of the court system support the adjudication of matters brought to us by other entities."
The proposed budget for the judiciary calls for no additional judges and, according to Judge Burke, "no one is presently suggesting we have fewer judges. The question is will the judiciary have adequate staff support?"
Court research suggests that the combination of proposed budget cuts and an anticipated $14 million in new insurance costs for current employees together would result in a reduction in force of nearly one-third of judiciary staff -- law clerks, court reporters, court schedulers, counter staff and management personnel.
Chief Justice Blatz warns that "without a third of our staff ... wholesale categories of cases essentially would not be heard. ... This cut likely would mean closing court locations as well ... ." In such circumstances, citizens, law enforcement, lawyers and probation officers all would be required to travel significant distances, resulting in a substantial reduction in access to justice.
Among the Court's ongoing initiatives that would be vulnerable to budget cuts are work to complete the Minnesota Court Information System -- a key component of the Crimnet system, previously scheduled transition of judicial districts 1, 2, 3, and 4 to state funding, and efforts to meet federal and state mandates regarding protection of children in cases of abuse and neglect.
The Minnesota Court Information System (mncis) is a computer system that when completed will link court records across the state, consolidate the judiciary's case processing and tracking functions, and facilitate the ready communication and retrieval of information among 1,100 criminal justice organizations across the state via Crimnet.
Planning for the system began in 2000 and in January 2003 the case management system was implemented in Carver County District Court. The system is slated for implementation in Hennepin County and additional "pilot" counties in the coming year, and is planned to include courts statewide in the next biennium.
Chief Justice Blatz has warned that "[w]ithout implementation of the mncis system, Crimnet will not be able to function and the resources already expended to develop the system will be lost."
The judicial branch is also engaged in completing the legislative mandate to transfer courts to state funding by July 2005. Fifty-five counties of the court system, including the entire western half of the state, have already transferred to state funding. The state's largest courts in Hennepin and Ramsey counties are due for transition to state funding on July 1, 2003, and courts in the counties of the 1st and 3rd judicial districts in southeastern Minnesota on July 1, 2004.
Chief Judge Burke observes that while one goal of the merger of state courts is to improve consistency and effectiveness, accomplishing the objectives of a merger is challenging in the best of circumstances. State funding "provides us the opportunity to function as a true branch of government," said Judge Burke, but "the current fiscal crisis means [attorneys'] feedback is even more critical" to ensure that these goals are realized.
Chief Justice Blatz notes that court staff have already devoted thousands of hours to identifying and resolving the issues and developing policies and systems to facilitate a smooth transition to state funding in the coming biennium. "Successful transition to state funding will allow the judiciary to operate as one system and develop the efficiencies which could not be accomplished with 87 individual county-based courts," she said.
Both federal law (1974 Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act) and state law (M.S. 260C.163, subd. 5(a)) mandate the appointment of a guardian ad litem in every case in which a child has been alleged to have been abused or neglected. Despite the longstanding mandates, according to Chief Justice Blatz's budget letter, "[t]oday 20 percent of the maltreated children in Minnesota still have no guardian ad litem and no effective voice in our courtrooms ... ." Additional state funds are needed to remedy this, and failure to meet the federal mandates "could result in the loss of significant federal funds."
Federal law also requires states to have an expedited process for the adjudication of "IV-D cases" establishing, modifying or enforcing child support obligations, and mandates that 75 percent of such matters in the expedited process move from service of process to filing of the final order in six months or less.
Pointing out that "[t]he judiciary has not asked for any increase in state funding since 1998 despite a 53 percent caseload growth," Chief Justice Blatz notes that state funds allocated to the Expedited Child Support Process generate a significant return of federal dollars while putting in place "basic financial support to sustain the health and well being of Minnesota's children ... ."
Legal Aid and Public Defense
Not to be overlooked in this discussion are the public defender and legal aid programs that share in the budget for the judicial branch.
John Stuart, the state public defender, reports that the Board of Public Defense requested 104 new lawyers for 2004-05, a request that, if granted, would reduce the caseload per public defender to 175 percent of the maximum caseload permitted by the aba standards. While the standards permit a lawyer to handle the equivalent of 400 misdemeanor cases per year, the average full-time public defender in Minnesota now handles the equivalent of 868 misdemeanors annually.
According to Stuart, the governor's proposed 15 percent cut in the Board's budget, when coupled with increased rates for insurance and other fixed costs, would equal the entire public defense budget for the 7th, 9th, and 10th judicial districts combined. While cuts of this magnitude would assuredly be spread across the state, the impact would be "a drastic loss of services" and "public defender rationing" which would compound an already serious shortage of public defenders that the Legislative Auditor in 2001 found to be one of the top two causes of court delays.
Fourth District Chief Judge Kevin Burke points out that the Auditor also found that "70 percent of judges believe there are too few public defenders -- many of whom are not well prepared because they have too little time to spend on cases." Lack of preparation time for attorneys was cited by the Auditor's 2001 report as the second leading cause of court delays.
MSBA President Duckstad stressed the risks to legal aid programs in his letter to members, noting that due to previous cuts in other private and public funding, "legal aid programs have already lost 19 percent of their lawyers." The proposed 10 percent cut in the legal aid budget, when coupled with other losses and increased costs, "would mean losing 40 percent of legal aid lawyers statewide," said Duckstad. "This means serving approximately 16,000 fewer families each year."
Legal aid programs not only provide valuable services to low-income clients, they assist the courts by resolving many matters outside the system and, when in court, use the court's time much more efficiently.
As Chief Judge Burke noted, "[w]hat happens to the Minnesota constitutional requirement of access to justice" if legal aid programs are cut yet again?
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Whether one's concern is for court efficiency, legal aid, successful merger of the state courts, or simply minimizing the adverse impact of budget cuts, it's clear that the Court budget for the upcoming biennium implicates the interests of Minnesota attorneys. MSBA President Duckstad is committed to keep members advised of developments in these areas -- through Bench & Bar, our email newsletter Legal News Digest, and when necessary, through direct individual communications. "Lawyers need to be involved in this budgeting process, both by supporting Court funding and by advising the Court on priorities," he said.
JUDSON HAVERKAMP is editor of Bench & Bar.