February 14, 2013 | Volume 118, Issue No. 7

The cost of state's justice system

“What part of justice do you not want us to do?” That was the question former Chief Justice Eric Magnuson asked four years ago when Minnesota was facing a huge budget shortfall. This year, the Minnesota Legislature must once again pass a budget while it considers how to handle a $1.1 billion shortfall.

If you don’t think this affects you, think again. Do you want to wait to have a trial on your divorce because there isn’t a judge available to hear it? Should you wait to have your speeding ticket processed through the system? If you’re eligible for a public defender, do you want an attorney who is also handling 50 other cases at the same time?

The Minnesota judicial system represents less than 2 percent of the entire state budget. Over 85 percent of the budget pays for personnel costs. The court budget was not cut as severely as other parts of the budget over the past four years. However, with increased costs not under the control of the judicial system, cuts have been made.

For example, the cost of employee health insurance is expected to increase 9 percent in 2013 and 9.5 percent in 2014. This means the court system must find money to pay for the increased cost with limited resources.

The employees of the court system have not received on-going pay increases since July 1, 2009. The salaries of judges have been frozen for over four years. Minnesota trial court judges rank 31st in the nation for pay. Some large legal firms pay first year associates (attorneys who have just graduated from law school) $30,000 more per year than Minnesota trial judges receive in compensation. In some Minnesota counties, the county attorney or some assistants earn more than a Minnesota district judge.

Just as important to the ongoing court needs is the lack of funding for the public defender system. In the Sixth Judicial District (Carlton, Cook, Lake and St. Louis counties), the public defender complement has fallen by nine attorneys. Currently, there are eight full-time and 19 part-time attorneys on the public defender staff. The American Bar Association recommends each full-time defender handle 150 cases per year. In the Sixth Judicial District, full-time defenders average between 250-300 cases and part-time attorneys handle between 175-210 cases per year.

Civil legal services, such as Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota, has suffered some of the worst cuts to their budgets. Legal Aid probably assists only one out of three people who need their help.

The judicial system has requested and Gov. Dayton has recommended increases in the court, public defender and civil legal services budgets. What can you do? You can contact your legislator and ask for the courts to be funded at its requested amount. You can tell them you want the public defender system to have enough resources to help all of the people who are eligible for their services. You can write to your representative about the need for civil legal services. Only time and the Legislature will tell whether the budget requests are fulfilled.

At a bottom line, you can tell your elected officials you don’t want the court system, public defenders or civil legal services to have to decide what part of justice will not be done.

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