Despite full support from Gov. Mark Dayton, the judiciary branch budget requests for treatment courts ($3.38 million), psychological exams and interpreters ($2.33 million), cybersecurity ($1.98 million) and salaries ($42.0 million) have either been turned down or fractionally funded by the GOP Legislature.
However, Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea is not giving up. The state judiciary’s administrator and self-appointed lobbyist-in-chief she says she is confident her full $51.4 million budget increase will be fulfilled before the legislative session concludes in late May.
Gildea spoke with Minnesota Lawyer on April 11, offering her views on where things stand with her budget and the work that lies ahead as the session winds down. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Q: What has your session been like so far?
A: So far at the Legislature I have had somewhere around 70 individual meetings with legislators advocating for justice system funding. I very much appreciate my role to be lobbyist in chief of the justice system and I enjoy that role. I spend a lot of time doing that.
Q: Given the Legislature’s responses to your funding requests, your conversations with the judiciary division committee chairs, Rep. Tony Cornish (R-Vernon Center) and Sen. Warren Limmer (R-Maple Grove), must have been a bit disappointing.
A: They are great champions for us.
Q: They have been traditionally, haven’t they?
A: They are this session, as well. The governor has been a steadfast supporter of justice system funding, so we are very grateful for his leadership and support.
Q: You recently said at a University of St. Thomas appearance that you worry your ability to carry out constitutional duties is threatened because of the judicial branch’s budget. Can you elaborate on that?
A: I think if the justice system is not adequately funded, the ability to carry out our constitutional obligation is in doubt.
We wish people would stop committing crime, but we know they are not going to — and defendants have a constitutional right to a speedy trial. So those cases get bumped to the head of the line.
I hate to prioritize case types. Yet we have got all these cases where kids are in need of protection. Those case types have gone up 56 percent in the last five years. We encourage our judges to think about those cases through the eyes of a child. Six months to you and I might seem like nothing; six months to a child could seem like a lifetime. These kids are wondering about who is mom and dad? Where am I going to live?
The idea that those cases are going to languish because we can’t convince the Legislature to give us the money that we need keeps me up at night.
Q: What is your response to the House and Senate judiciary budget bills?
A: We are grateful that the Legislature in the House and the Senate, and the governor, fund the two new judgeships.
We have expanded treatment courts to about 70 percent of the state of Minnesota. When they come in, a lot of the times they are partially county-funded and grant-funded. The concern there is that you get a grant for a period of time, you spend all this time and effort getting this program up and running, and then the grant goes away. So we are hopeful that we can get some funding to sustain them and put these courts on a firmer financial foundation.
Then there are psychological exams and interpreter services. We see more and more folks in our courts that have mental illnesses — the requests for exams, I think, have gone up 13 percent over the last couple of years. So that is a concern for us.
The last piece of it is cybersecurity. As we have moved more toward the electronic world we have a tremendous amount of private data. We need to make sure that we have the protections in place to make sure that what is supposed to be private stays private, and what is supposed to be public is public.
Q: Gov. Dayton recently called you a “fiscally responsible, conservative person” whose budget requests are uniformly “well justified.” You were appointed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Does it feel a little odd to have a DFLer as your top defender?
A: [Laughs.] As I’ve said, I hope that funding for the justice system continues to be bipartisan. I have every reason to believe that that is how it will come out.
Q: The governor also pledged to “fight very hard” to get your full budget enacted. How heartening was that?
A: It’s very gratifying.
He and I share an appreciation for hockey — women’s hockey more for me — and we have been to some games together. We were talking the other day about the value, at tournament time, of having a really good goalie. And I told him that the justice system needs a really good goalie right now — and that we needed him to be our goalie, in terms of funding. It’s good for us to know that he is in goal.
Q: How successful do you think he can be in carrying out that pledge, given that he and the Legislature have completely different priorities in many cases, and they all have so many other competing interests to balance?
A: Well, that’s not new. My message back to them is you don’t have to sacrifice any of your competing priorities, because our part of the budget is so small — you could fund the whole branch’s request for about 5 percent of the surplus. You can take 95 percent of the surplus and give it back in tax cuts if that’s what you want to do. The court system is a separate branch of government and it is not too much to ask.
Q: Was it unusual in your experience to see the Senate produce such a smaller budget target for your division, at $50 million, than the House’s $112 million?
A: I was surprised. I think that Sen. Limmer has said publicly that he was disappointed with his target. I am very disappointed with his target, and I have expressed that to the majority leader [Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa].
I am not a patient person by nature, so for me that fact that it is April 11 and this isn’t done tries my patience in a way. But I have to be mindful that in the life of the Legislature, it is still early.
Q: I know you are hopeful. But what are your expectations for the final five weeks of session?
A: My expectation is that we will get our request funded.
Q: It sounds like you actually have confidence about that.
A: I do. I mean, I haven’t been in this job forever, but this is my fourth biennium. I believe in our system and I believe that we have well-meaning and dedicated public servants in the Legislature and at the end of the day they are going to do the right thing.
Q: Are you fighter when it comes to that?
A: I think so. I hope so. I tend to be very direct. And perhaps that’s a strength. I don’t know. But I am who I am.