Meeting the Crisis in Funding
for the Courts and for Legal Services
By James L. Baillie
This past spring the courts of Minnesota faced an unprecedented challenge when the governor's proposed budget called for a 10 percent cut in the funding to all agencies with the Court treated as an "agency." Because the Court's budget is primarily personnel, because judges' salaries may not be constitutionally cut, because personnel cuts lead to increased severance costs, because health insurance costs are rising rapidly, and for other reasons, that 10 percent cut would have resulted in a 30 percent cut in personnel -- potentially crippling the court system. In the face of that challenge, Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz, State Court Administrator Sue Dosal, and the entire judiciary responded in outstanding fashion: responding to inquiries, preparing revised budgets, working to make the court system more effective, and working with the Legislature.
The courts worked with the MSBA as well. We met with the Court a number of times. Ken White, a member of our MSBA Executive Committee, was included as a liaison to the Court's planning committee and spent a great deal of time in that important role.
Jon Duckstad alerted our MSBA membership through an email message that went to the 11,000-plus members for whom we have email addresses. Members were invited to reply and many did with a great variety of viewpoints. Some, for example, felt that a budget cut would help the courts, like other parts of government, to become more efficient, or that spending to meet the needs of children and vulnerable adults should receive a higher priority than the courts, but the vast majority endorsed the MSBA support for the courts in the budget debates. The diversity of those responses reminds us that, in general, the MSBA should not take positions on basic political issues such as the size of the state budget, taxes, or spending priorities. However, as expressed in the MSBA Mission Statement and Vision Statement, quoted above, the MSBA is committed to give high priority to aiding the courts. That commitment will sometimes lead to expressing MSBA's support to the Legislature.
When the Court considered an increase in civil filing fees as a possible part of the solution to the budget problem, the Court asked the MSBA for its opinion. While Jon Duckstad, as president, was empowered to speak on behalf of the MSBA, we felt that our response should stem from as broadly based a consideration of the issue as the circumstances permitted. There was not enough time for a meeting of the Board of Governors. Instead, we held a series of telephone conference meetings, facilitated by different members of the Executive Committee, offering Board members six different times to participate.
Those discussions were thorough, addressing not only the broad policy issues but also some of the specific proposed changes in the fee structure. The Board members generally were concerned with the access-to-justice implications of the proposed fee increases. They argued, generally, that the court system, as the constitutional third branch of our government, should be freely accessible and that the courts should be adequately funded from general revenue. However, given the practical alternatives in these political circumstances, they perceived the proposed increase in court fees as the lesser evil. We relayed to the Court some specific concerns with some of the proposed fee changes but told the Court that the MSBA would not oppose the fee increases, assuming that the cuts for legal services were no greater than those suffered by the Court.
Expressing that position was not enough. Led by Jon Duckstad, an MSBA "team" comprising Ken White -- our liaison to the Court, Sue Holden -- chair of the Legislative Committee for the MSBA Board of Governors, Lloyd Grooms -- our lobbyist, myself, and others spent time at the Legislature and on the phone urging that there be no cuts or minimal cuts in funding for the Court, for legal services, and for the public defender system. (Here, the continuing outstanding legislative efforts of former MSBA presidents Kent Gernander and Roger Stageberg in support of legal services should also be acknowledged.)
The results, given the circumstances, were outstanding: a 3.09 percent cut for the courts and legal services and no cuts for the public defender system.
These challenges have presented opportunities as well. They presented an opportunity to strengthen our relationship with the courts through a liaison member to the Court's planning committee and through regular meetings with the leadership of the courts. It seems clear that these events will lead to more regular communication and cooperation between the courts and the MSBA.
For the past year, strengthening our legislative presence and effectiveness has been a priority. That effort is a work in process. The challenge to funding for the courts and legal services was an early test and something that we expect will lead us to a stronger legislative presence in the future.
JIM BAILLIE is president of the Minnesota State Bar Association. A shareholder in the firm of Fredrikson & Byron, P.A., he concentrates his practice in business bankruptcy and insolvency law and related litigation and business transactions.