The Minnesota Supreme Court has extended a $75 increase to the lawyer registration fee to help fund the state’s public defense system and made a $25 increase for legal services permanent.
The increases were sought by the Minnesota Board of Public Defense and the Legal Services Advisory Committee. The court took public comments on the issue late last year.
In November 2009, the high court approved a temporary assessment of $75 for public defenders and $25 for legal aid. The increases were to expire with the fees due and payable by July 1, 2011.
In an order filed yesterday, the high court granted the legal services committee’s request to make the $25 increase permanent, but denied the board of public defense’s request for an indefinite extension of the $75 increase. The court did, however, extend it for one additional temporary period, effective with the lawyer registration fees due and payable by Oct. 1, 2011, and expiring with fees due and payable by July 1, 2013.
The high court also had some cautionary words for the Legislature and the governor.
“[W]e will not continue, beyond this second temporary fee increase, to rely on lawyer registration fees to fund the constitutional obligation of the State to provide defense counsel for indigent criminal defendants,” wrote Chief Justice Lorie Gildea. “We call on the Legislature and the Governor to fulfill their constitutional responsibilities to provide adequate funding for the public defense system, with the knowledge that the additional temporary funding provided by this fee increase will not be extended beyond the July 2013 fees provided for in this order.”
In a concurrence, Justice David Stras said he has “serious doubts” about the court’s authority, “inherent or otherwise, to order a fee increase for a service that the State of Minnesota is constitutionally obligated to provide to its citizens.” He nonetheless “reluctantly” joined the majority opinion because the court’s inherent authority to authorize the fee increase was settled by a majority of the court when it temporarily granted the fee increase in 2009. Justice Christopher Dietzen also concurred.
As he did when the November 2009 order was issued, Justice Alan Page dissented, contending that the court has no authority to assess members of the bar a fee to fund Minnesota’s public defense system. The justice also wrote that “the obligation to provide for and fund our system for indigent defendant defense is the obligation of the state.”
This has been a controversial issue in Minnesota, with many lawyers agreeing with Page that they have no obligation to fund public defense. If you want to weigh in, we’d like to hear from you.