Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Judge Dale Harris
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

Judge's View

 

February 14, 2019



The recent Polar Vortex resulted in quite a few calls inquiring whether the courthouse was open for business. We were, and I am very thankful that heated seats were included in my last vehicle purchase. But the decision process for closing a courthouse is probably a little more complicated than most people know.

The Minnesota Judicial Branch is a State office, but the courthouse building is run by the County. That means there are a couple different ways that a courthouse can be closed.

First, at the State level, the Office of Management and Budget has the authority to close a state office, either statewide or on a county-by-county basis. Information about closure of state offices is available on the website https://mn.gov/mmb/be-ready-mn. The site lists office closures by county and is usually updated not later than 6:00 a.m.

Second, if the County makes a decision to close its courthouse building, then the court offices will also be closed. Most counties have other local agencies working out of the courthouse, so the County has to make its independent determination about the conditions. For example, Koochiching County made the decision to close its courthouse on one day during the recent frigid weather. Even though the State did not close the court in International Falls, because the building was closed, the courts were closed. Most counties have similar websites to tell the public of any closures. The various unions for court staff have rules on how court employees account for time due to emergency closures by the County, usually authorizing sick leave, compensatory time, or vacation.

Technology has helped this process considerably. Our judicial district uses an employee alert system, so we will all receive a text message if the courthouse is ordered closed. This is a much more efficient way of pushing that information out to staff, some of whom drive long distances to get to work.

Of course, even if the courts are open, weather emergencies affect all the individual employees trying to make it to the courthouse. It is not unusual for the courts to run a skeleton crew on those days, as employees in rural areas might take longer to have their roads plowed or otherwise restored to safe driving condition. After the big wind storm a few years ago, a couple of my fellow judges needed some quality time with their chainsaws before they were able to make it into work. If an employee does not feel safe in traveling to work, that employee must notify their supervisor and use accrued leave time to account for the absence, and the supervisor must not unreasonably deny such a request. Employees without sufficient accrued leave may make arrangements to make up the time beyond normal working hours.

Obviously, Northern Minnesotans are used to dealing with difficult weather, particularly in the winter. Courthouse closures are very rare. During my time as a judge in Duluth, I can only remember a couple times that we closed for even part of the day, and one of those was the 2012 flood. So unless there are seals flopping down Grand Avenue again, odds are good that the courthouse is open.

 

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