I imagine there are few readers of this blog who don’t recognize the funding crisis facing our court system, and the problems it’s creating. As attorneys, we see first-hand the effects of backlogged judges and overworked court staff.
For that reason, I’d bet that few readers here were opposed to the Minnesota Supreme Court’s recent order extending an increase in lawyer registration fees to support the Board of Public Defense and the Legal Services Planning Committee. On first blush, I thought it was a good idea; after all, public defenders are notoriously overburdened, and there’s certainly no shortage of need for assistance for indigent civil litigants. However, the more I thought about the issue, the more I found myself in agreement with Justice Page, the sole dissenter to the Court’s order granting the extension.
(Full disclosure: although I now work at a private firm, I previously worked for the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis. I spent a year and a half there as a clerk while in law school, and a little more than two years there as an attorney after I graduated and passed the bar. Although I no longer work there, I still have many friends who do, and it’s kind of awkward when they show up as my opposing counsel.)
So why am I opposed to extending the fee increase? It’s not a philosophical problem with public defenders, or an inability to pony up the additional $100. I am opposed to the fee increase because I believe it gives the Governor and the Legislature a pass on dealing with the real crisis facing our courts. As Justice Stras wrote in his concurrence, “it is not the responsibility of lawyers alone to disproportionately fund a core, constitutionally-mandated service of government through a fee that was designed solely to regulate our profession.” But by extending the fee increase, the Court allows Governor Dayton and the Legislature to continue not to make court funding a priority.
There’s been no shortage of media coverage of the public defenders’ ridiculous caseloads. Minnesota Public Radio , the Star Tribune, and MinnPost are just a few of the media outlets that have covered the issue. And yet the public defenders, and our court system overall, continue to be underfunded to the point that we cannot meet our Constitutional obligations to provide indigent defendants with counsel.
Although Justice Page and I agree, I don’t have a vote and he was the only dissent. The fee increase has been extended, for better or for worse. The Court promised that this was the last time they would extend it, so we’ll see what happens when it expires in July 2013. I can only hope that, by then, Chief Justice Gildea’s message in the order has been heeded: “We will not continue … to rely on lawyer registration fees to fund the constitutional obligation of the State to provide defense counsel for indigent criminal defendants. We call on the Legislature and the Governor to fulfill their constitutional responsibilities to provide adequate funding for the public defense system.”