For the first time in a decade, the Minnesota Judicial Branch will seek funding for two new District Court judges this legislative session.
That $1.7 million request would also pay for two new court reporters and two law clerks. The request is part of an overall $51.4 million budget proposal, which the judiciary has submitted to Gov. Mark Dayton in hopes that he will include it in his own Jan. 24 biennial budget pitch.
If the total request is forwarded by Dayton and passed by the Legislature, it would increase by 7.9 percent the branch’s base budget for fiscal year 2018-19, according to Beau Berentson, the Judiciary Branch’s communications director.
The 25-member Minnesota Judicial Council reviewed and approved the funding request last fall, Berentson said. That policymaking panel includes 19 judges and six administrators, and is chaired by Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea.
Aside from a few brief discussions with legislators about budget priorities, however, the full budget has not yet been presented in detail to legislators, Berentson said.
One such discussion took place Jan. 9, when State Court Administrator Jeff Shorba was making his introductory presentations to new members of the judicially focused legislative committees.
At a Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee meeting that day, Shorba said that Minnesota trial caseloads have grown steadily since 2012, leading the Judicial Council to decide two new District Court judgeships are needed.
Specifically, Shorba said, cited a 56 percent increase in cases related to children in need of protection or services between 2012 and 2016.
Meanwhile, between 2015 and 2016, the number of major criminal-case filings rose by 12 percent, Shorba said. Major-case filings include felonies and gross misdemeanors, which tend to involve more hearings and take judges more time to resolve, he said.
Also between 2015 and 2016, there was a 25 percent increase in drug-related case filings, Shorba said. Drug-related cases are considered a sub-category of major case filings, he said.
All together in 2015, Shorba told legislators, there were slightly fewer than 200,000 major case filings, comprising about 15 percent of the District Courts’ 1.3 million total case filings, Shorba said.
Shorba made a similar presentation to the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee on Jan. 17. But there he added a detail, saying that because of increased caseloads, eight of the state’s 10 judicial districts are experiencing what he termed “an upward trend in judge need.”
If two new District Court judges eventually were hired, it would raise the total number statewide to 293, according to Judicial Branch figures.
The last time the judiciary asked for new trial court judges was in 2007. That year, it requested nine new judges; funding for seven was granted, according to information supplied by Berentson.
While significant news, the proposed judgeships are not the largest request in the branch’s biennial budget. Other items include:
Increased compensation ($42.1 million): The judiciary seeks funding to raise judges’ pay by 3.5 percent per year while providing a 3.5 percent annual “compensation pool” for court employees. It also seeks more money for the employer’s share of health insurance premium increases as well as the employer’s share of proposed pension contribution increases. Part of the motivation behind this request, the judiciary’s written request states, is to make salaries more competitive in preparation for a wave of judicial retirements over the next decade.
“Today, judges in some counties make significantly less than the county attorneys who appear before them, and, in some cases, even less than the assistant county attorneys,” the budget request states.
Treatment court stabilization ($3.4 million): The number of drug, DWI and other treatment courts has proliferated statewide. But many rely on uncertain, short-term funding sources like federal grants and state agency appropriations to remain in operation. The judiciary’s proposed budget seeks additional money to stabilize those programs, which three Minnesota studies have shown reduce recidivism, increase public safety and save money. Currently, 58 treatment courts, including 11 multi-county programs, provide services in more than 70 percent of Minnesota’s counties.
“As grants go away we need to find ways to sustain these courts,” Shorba told Senate Judiciary Committee members on Jan. 9. “We will be talking about that sustainability formula as we come forward with our budget requests.”
Mandated services ($2.3 million): The branch is looking for more money to cover the rising costs of services mandated by state and federal law. That includes court costs for criminal and civil case psychological exams, which rose by 13 percent between 2012 and 2016, according to Judicial Branch information. The request also would increase compensation for language interpreters, who have been paid at the same rate in Minnesota since 1999. Similarly, it would boost pay for sign language interpreters, who haven’t had a raise since 2006.
Cybersecurity ($2 million): Electronic court filings became mandatory in all Minnesota counties in 2016, and as courts transition to a fully electronic environment, the judiciary wants more money to secure its data and technical infrastructure. The increased funding would help enhance the court’s security and risk management programs and help address staff, training, hardware and software needs, according to the written budget summary.