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In the Hopper: Judiciary budget, exonerated persons, parental rights

Judiciary Budget: Things might change a lot by Thursday when the House Judiciary committee runs through the delete-all version of its budget proposal. But we already have a glimpse of its spending priorities.

House File 2705 was introduced on March 25—the same day that House leaders unveiled their budget targets. The bill lists proposed appropriations for Minnesota’s courts and the state’s Human Rights Department, Guardian Ad Litem Board, Board of Public Defense, and several other court-related budget areas.

The delete-all amendment is expected to be posted by April 3, which means that some or all of the numbers that follow might change right around the time this edition goes to press. But here’s where things stood in the judiciary placeholder budget bill at press time.

  • Supreme Court: The bill lists $120.6 million in spending over the 2020-21 biennium. That includes a 5 percent salary hike for the Supreme Court—the same salary increase proposed for the Court of Appeals and state district courts. Gov. Tim Walz’s revamped budget, issued in the wake of the flagging February forecast, granted just a 3 percent salary increase for all the courts. Also included in this part of the budget is $2.5 million for cybersecurity and $2.2 million for civil legal services to low-income family law clients.
  • Court of Appeals: HF2705’s $26.3 million allocation over the biennium funds the bill’s proposed 3.5 percent salary hikes.
  • District Courts: A $634.1 million, two-year appropriation would pay for the salary hikes, two new judges, mandated psychological services, treatment court stability and gun violence prevention. The latter is a—perhaps optimistic—$162,000 allocation to process extreme risk protective orders. The money would be subject to passage of gun safety legislation, which faces a long uphill climb in the Senate.
  • Guardians ad Litem: The Guardian ad Litem Board would get $44.45 million over the biennium, should the bill pass in its current form. Of that, $8.65 million would be used to hire new guardians, a move meant to keep pace with federal and state mandates.
  • Public Defenders: This part of the bill dedicates $208.32 million to public defenders over the 2020-21 biennium. But the bill in its initial form did not break down how that money would be spent.
  • Human Rights: The Human Rights Department gets $14.10 million over the biennium in the bill’s pre-delete-all form. The only break out for spending listed in this section is $10,000 for a micro-grant program for groups and local governments to build out capacity.

 

Exonerated persons: Prompted by a state Supreme Court decision, a Senate committee has approved a bill that would make it easier for someone exonerated of a crime to qualify for compensation.

In fact, as former Justice David Stras described it in his 2017 Back v. State opinion, the bill would eliminate the need to do the impossible—secure a prosecutor’s dismissal of criminal charges that no longer exist.

Currently, Minnesota Statutes Section 590.11 defines an exonerated person as someone whose conviction was “vacated or reversed … on grounds consistent with innocence and the prosecutor dismissed the charges.”

Stras’ opinion—which had three partial dissents—concluded that, as applied, the “and” provision in that part of the law violates the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

In effect, it relies on a paradox: Minnesota’s Rules of Criminal Procedure allow prosecutors to dismiss charges, but once an appellate court overturns a conviction the lower court must vacate it and enter an acquittal. Prosecution ends there; no charges remain to be dismissed, Stras wrote.

“In essence, the Legislature has set up a regime under which a claimant’s eligibility to file a compensation petition is contingent on whether the prosecutor has performed a legally impossible act,” the opinion states wrote.

Senate File 173 from Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, would change the definition of “exonerated.” The term would refer to a conviction that a court has vacated, reversed or set aside “on grounds consistent with innocence.” No felony charges related to the original incident could be in effect at the time of exoneration, unless the prosecutor dismisses them.

A person also would be considered exonerated if a new trial is ordered and either the prosecutor dismisses the charges or the defendant is found not guilty at re-trial.

The bill also applies the term “exoneration” to situations in which 60 days pass without the prosecutor refiling new felony charges following a conviction’s vacation or reversal.

The bill also swaps out terms like “in prison” and “imprisonment” for terms like “incarceration” throughout the statute, to make clear that exonerations can be secured for overturned jail sentences as well as prison convictions.

The law caps exoneration damages at $100,000 per year of incarceration served or $50,000 per year served on supervised release or probation as a registered predatory offender. Under the law, an independent judicial panel reviews claims and recommends how much compensation is due. The Legislature then decides whether to appropriate the compensation funds.

Julie Jonas, legal director for the Innocence Project of Minnesota, testifies for a bill from Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park (right), which redefines what an exonerated person is for purposes of claiming compensation. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Julie Jonas, legal director for the Innocence Project of Minnesota, testifies for a bill from Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park (right), which redefines what an exonerated person is for purposes of claiming compensation. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Julie Jonas, legal director of the Innocence Project of Minnesota, told senators that the bill’s revisions were the result of long negotiations with county prosecutors.

She said the tweaks would not open the floodgates on new exoneration claims. The 2014 law passed at a time when only three people were known to be exonerated in Minnesota, she said. Since then, just three more such cases have surfaced.

“So this is a very, very limited remedy for a small group of people,” she said. “I think even with the addition of potential compensation for jail time, this is not going to open up the flood gates. Because it is a very, very high bar to getting compensation.”

Senate Judiciary passed the bill as amended through a unanimous voice vote on March 29. It now awaits a Senate floor vote.

 

Parental rights: The Judiciary committee on March 29 also sent to the Senate floor a bill that might make it easier for parents whose rights have been terminated to reunite with their children.

Senate File 342 comes from Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis. It would make several substantial changes to Minnesota Statutes Section 260C.329, that law that governs reestablishment of the legal parent-child relationship.

Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis (left), testifies on March 29 for his bill to make it easier for parents to reclaim lost parental rights. Beside him is Gina Evans outreach director at Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge, who supported the bill. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis (left), testifies on March 29 for his bill to make it easier for parents to reclaim lost parental rights. Beside him is Gina Evans outreach director at Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge, who supported the bill. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Among its most important changes, the bill would allow a parent whose rights were terminated to petition for reestablishment. Under current law, only the county attorney can do that.

The bill also would do away with a requirement that a child be at least 15 year old before a petition is filed. In exchange for that concession in the bill, county attorneys negotiated to increase the length of time a child must spend in foster care from 24 months to 48 months before a petition can be filed.

Nancy Haas, a government relations lawyer representing the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, said that prosecutors work with children to find permanency after their parents are forced to give them up. That’s why they pushed to expand the pre-petition foster care time requirement, she said.

“The County Attorneys Association wants more time to be able to do that work,” she said. “So the time period is very important to us.”

The bill would require a petitioning parent notify the county attorney and the responsible social services agency 45 days before a petition is filed.

Champion told fellow senators that only parents whose cases involve “non-egregious harm” to the child—mostly drug abuse or mental health issues—could apply for parental rights reestablishment under his bill. And the parent would have to show the court that the problems prevalent at the time parental rights were lost have been addressed.

In an interview, Champion said the system comes down hardest on communities of color. Often times, he said, kids get taken from African-American or Native American parents and placed with white foster families. That can lead to a cultural disconnect for the kids, whose foster families often have no connections to their own extended families.

“What I don’t want to get lost here is that we’re grateful for anyone that will help care for children and help support a family when they are in a state of trauma,” Champion said. “But they don’t know the sorts of things that you hope that they would know about the child. So yeah, this bill just speaks to the need for that to be expedited.”

The House version, authored by Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, was scheduled for a floor vote on Wednesday afternoon, after this story’s deadline.

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About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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