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The chief judges of Minnesota's appellate courts and largest county are uneasy about the potential for more budget cuts aimed at the state's judiciary this legislative session.

Chiefs speak: Budget issues will affect litigators

Bill Klotz)

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Michael Johnson, Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea and Hennepin County Chief Judge James Swenson spoke last week on how cuts to the courts impact lawyers and their clients. (Photo: Bill Klotz)

The chief judges of Minnesota’s appellate courts and largest county are uneasy about the potential for more budget cuts aimed at the state’s judiciary this legislative session.

At a recent seminar – “The Impact of Budget Cuts on Civil Litigation in MN Courts” – the trio discussed their concerns, as well as the myriad ways in which further cuts to the courts will affect litigators and their clients. Hennepin County District Court Judge Jay Quam moderated the discussion.

The hour-long program was held March 1 at Fredrickson & Byron in Minneapolis.

Quam: Can you give some historical context to what challenges we face from a budget perspective?

Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea: “We have been chronically underfunded for years. … The judiciary’s budget right now is $272 million a year. That’s how much the court system costs. … Our budget has been cut the last three years by about $19 million. … And there are budgetary shortfalls built in on top of that. By that I mean unavoidable costs – health insurance keeps going up. We don’t get money to take care of those unavoidable costs so then we’ve got to lay off people … key positions often. We’ve lost about 270 people since 2008. … That’s about 10 percent of our work force.

Our research says we need 20 more judges than we have. So we’re in trouble in the court system in terms of our funding. It’s not a recent situation but it’s a very dramatic situation now because we gotten to the point where we’ve had, just recently, three felony convictions reversed in Minnesota because the state and the courts couldn’t meet speedy trial demands.

Quam: Where do we stand at the trial court level?

Hennepin County District Court Chief Judge James Swenson: We start the year funded to 91 percent of our need on the administration side and on top of that in Hennepin we hold open about 35-40 positions. … We’ve basically cut just about every program that we possibly could a long time ago.

Quam: Judge Johnson, what do you see happening from the Court of Appeals perspective?

Minnesota Court of Appeals Chief Judge Matthew Johnson: The budget of the Court of Appeals is about $10 million per year. … [After adding three judges in 2008], the Legislature made a series of reductions that resulted in about 4 percent less than that. That might not sound like much but it is a lot because about half of our budget goes to the building and to judges’ salaries and benefits. … About 4 percent of our budget is operating expenses – things like equipment and supplies and travel and postage and telephone. The rest is our staff. So when our budget was cut by 4 percent we were forced to reduce the number of law clerks. When I started each judge had 2.5 law clerks; now each judge has 2.0 and there are a couple of floaters. That’s essentially a 15 percent decrease in our law clerk pool and that reduces our decision-making capacity.

Quam: What do you see as the possible range of outcomes in the legislative process? How will the worst case affect all of us?

Gildea: The leadership in the House asked all entities who seek funding from the Legislature to explain how they would absorb a 15 to 20 percent cut in their budget. … If it’s a 15 percent cut statewide that’s about 700 employees we’d have to lay off, that’s dozens of courthouse locations that we would have to close up. The Judicial Counsel [would have to go] through an exercise of prioritizing cases. If you’ve got to lay off 700 people, you’ve got that many fewer people to do the work. So you start to prioritize your cases into the highs, the mediums and the lows.

With a 15 percent cut, essentially all the cases that are in the low category … just continue to back up. Those are the cases primarily where we bring in about $200 million in revenue for the state and municipalities through fines and fee collections. … We can’t get to those low priority cases because we don’t have any people to do the work; therefore the $200 million in revenue that we bring in is very much in play.

Quam: Talk about where the [public defenders and legal services] stand and how you see their funding being affected.

Gildea: We’re very much an ecosystem. What happens to the public defenders impacts the court system; what happens to civil legal services definitely impacts the court system. And both of those entities are in crisis mode. The public defenders have lost … 15 or 20 percent of their work force over the years due to budget cuts. Similarly, in civil legal services, they’re down. … It’s just dramatic because when there isn’t a legal aid lawyer there to help the pro se plaintiffs then everything just gets backed up and it takes the judge more time. When there isn’t a public defender there the criminal case can’t proceed at all. It’s like a domino effect; everything gets backed up while we’re waiting. …

Why is this relevant to all of the civil practitioners? It’s relevant to you because it will take us a lot longer to get to your cases. And when we do finally get to them we’re going to have less time to resolve them. So the opinions that you’re going to see probably aren’t going to be what you’re used to because we’re not going to have the time that we used to have to spend carefully crafting a memorandum explaining all the reasons why your motion for summary judgment was denied. You’re going to get one sentence orders.

Swenson: Each day every one of the Hennepin County public defenders has to be, on an average, in three or more places at the same time. … It impacts you. When you are trying your cases, you may get started but [the judge] has to take a break to do a sentencing because she couldn’t get the public defender in there early in the morning or the day before. If you’ve got to break early to attend to the criminal stuff, that’s going to slow all of your stuff down.

Quam: How else do you see this affecting lawyers and the way they handle their cases?

Johnson: If we have to suffer a 15 percent cut in our budget it will inevitably lead to delays. If we gave each case the same amount of time and attention, before the biennium is over it would probably be about a one-year delay between briefing and oral argument. … There’d be delays that I think would be intolerable.

Gildea: Another thing that is already starting to happen is if you get your case all the way through or maybe you get a default, in some places in our state it’s already taking up to two months to get the paperwork processing done before you can start to collect on your judgment. … That’s going to get worse.

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