Editor’s note: The Judiciary omnibus bill, “as barely amended,” according to committee chair Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, was unanimously approved and sent to House Ways and Means just before noon Tuesday. Minnesota Lawyer was unable to attend the hearing but will review tape and the amended bill for any changes to the legislation described below.]
District court judges stand to get a bigger raise than their Supreme Court and Court of Appeals colleagues if the House passes the Judiciary committee budget omnibus that was going through markups while this story was going to press.
The Judiciary omnibus, House File 2705 (lead author, Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul), offers district court judges a 4 percent per year raise in 2020 and 2021. If that goes through, district court judges would earn $170,004 by fiscal year 2021. They currently are paid $157,179 a year.
That’s less than the 5 percent per year raise that the Minnesota District Judges Association asked for in February. But it’s greater than the 3 percent per year raise being offered to the state’s appellate judges.
It’s also more than Gov. Tim Walz had asked for. His proposed 3 percent per year salary raise for district court judges would’ve cost the state $5.5 million over the next biennium. The House bill surpasses that by almost $2 million— topping $7.3 million over the biennium.
All other court employees get 3 percent per year raises in the budget, which was presented to Judiciary committee members in its original form on April 4.
Altogether, the judiciary budget bill—before amendments—provided $120.12 million to the Supreme Court, $26.13 million to the Court of Appeals and $632.50 million to the district courts over the next biennium.
The bill also allocates $1.758 million over two years for two additional district court judgeships, $2.14 million to bolster mandated court psychological services and $306,000 for treatment court sustainability.
The Supreme Court separately gets $5 million over the biennium for cybersecurity enhancements.
It includes provisions that increase civil filing fees from $285 to $335; that require courts to consider a defendant’s ability to pay before imposing fines; and that allow the courts to reduce or waive criminal or traffic ticket surcharges for the indigent.
It also ups the percentage of fines, penalty and forfeitures that Ramsey County municipalities can keep, from the current 50 percent to two-thirds of proceeds.
Lesch’s five-section delete-all amendment, which he presented in committee on April 9, included 63 pages of finance and policy changes.
That’s considerably shorter than the 240-plus page Public Safety bill passed on April 4. But odds are that the two bills eventually will be combined, so they can be presented as a single entity in conference committee negotiations against the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety committee’s finance bill.
It became evident during the April 4 House Judiciary bill walk through that two particular provisions—both initially authored by Lesch as standalone bills—could generate controversy as they moved toward an April 9 vote.
“I’m here just to put on the record that as an association we continue to oppose the forfeiture bill, “ said Bill Hutton, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association. “It is a very complicated bill and we are asking that we can push pause to continue the conversation about forfeitures in the state of Minnesota.”
Rep. Andrew Carlson, DFL-Bloomington, wondered whether that might not be a good idea.
“Would that be advantageous to law enforcement—to take a closer look at the forfeiture law and have a chance to look at this more closely, before diving into such a major change?” he asked BCA Superintendent Drew Evans.
“I know some of those conversations are rapidly occurring,” Evans answered.
In fact, such conversations have been ongoing for years. Last year, former Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, carried a bill quite similar to Lesch’s. Then as now, proponents challenged law enforcement’s practice of seizing property that they then to convert to cash to fund their own departments’ crime-fighting efforts.
Lesch asked Hutton if he thinks forfeitures are “an optimal way” to finance law enforcement.
“Optimal? Gosh, no. If you’re thinking that we had all the money in the world, give us the money for what we need,” Hutton said. Civil forfeiture, he said, is simply “a tool that we use.”
The other bill likely headed for a tough discussion is Lesch’s proposal to create a “cooperative divorce program” for Minnesota. That proposal was originally Lesch’s House File 1115.
The program would be established in the Bureau of Mediation Services. It would allow participants to file their divorce paperwork through the bureau and be granted a marriage dissolution by the agency’s commissioner. The bill would require divorcing parents to complete a parent-education program. It also includes language that could grant program participants summary real-estate disposition, post-dissolution.
Lesch testified earlier in the spring that the bill would take couples out of adversarial courtroom settings where lawyers, out to score wins, tend to pit partners against one another.
His idea got pushback from Liz Richards, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women. She said courts need to be at the center of divorces to protect domestic partners, especially women, from violence.
“When you’re considering reforming the family court system around divorce,” Richards said, “that includes changing the system for divorce cases where there’s domestic violence. The levels of violence and control that can happen during a divorce case are high and the impact can be devastating.”
She said some men going through divorce employ coercive tactics to achieve inequitable results. That requires judges to review cases so they can stop such abuses, she said.
Lesch, a private defense attorney, countered that divorce agreements and stipulations reviewed by judges aren’t examined to determine whether they are one-sided.
“They’re evaluated to determine whether or not the parties have agreement and there’s some consideration for it,” he said. “Do you agree that agreements that going in front of a judge could still be very one-sided?”
That can happen, Richards agreed.
“I’m not saying that 100 percent of the time these cases are caught in the current system,” she replied. “But there is judicial oversight and judges are asking further questions … [if] an agreement has been reached that really does not appear to be in the best interest of one party or the children.”
“I would simply propose to you that it’s a heck of a lot less than 100 percent of the time,” Lesch said. “A whole lot less.”
Among its other provisions, the bill also includes:
House File 1404 (chief author, Lesch), which creates a Legislative Intelligence and Technology commission to examine the adoption of new and potentially intrusive technologies by law enforcement. Unusually, the bill allows to the panel to meet in closed session and includes civil liability for legislators who leak information.
House File 724 (Rep. Hunter Cantrell, DFL-Savage), which clarifies that spouses who donate ova and/or semen in assisted reproductions will be treated legally as biological parents. It also clarifies that sperm donors would not be considered biological parents, unless married to the person conceiving the child.
House File 10 (Rep. Kelly Moller) is sexual harassment legislation that would do away with the “severe or pervasive” courtroom standard. In a classic belt-and-suspenders move, this bill is included in the omnibus despite having already passed off the House floor in a 113-10 vote. That’s probably because the Senate has not taken it up, preferring a competing approach that would crystallize the standard in statute.
House Files 2004 (Lesch) allows the Department of Human Rights to share information with either party in a district court proceeding, if that court case gets launched after Human Rights closes an administrative case involving those parties.
House File 2743 (Lesch) establishes a $1 cybersecurity charge imposed on fees collected by district court administrators.