Court system short of cashby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
A year ago during the last legislative session, the people who run Minnesota's court system warned lawmakers the Legislature wasn't supplying them enough money to do the job. A year later, the Minnesota judicial system is reporting a deficit.
St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota state courts administrator Sue Dosal said lawmakers were warned last session the Legislature wasn't giving them enough to pay the costs of running the system.
A year later, Dosal said, the state courts deficit is more than $16 million. Of that, $13 million is due to rising employee costs.
Dosal, an attorney, oversees the $300 million state courts operating budget.
The biggest expense -- about 85 percent of the budget -- goes to pay the salaries of the 3,200-person court staff -- the judges, clerks, reporters and others who run the system.
Dosal said coping with the deficit means some state courts jobs aren't being filled.
"Holding open positions, abolishing positions. Right now we have something like 160, 170 positions that we have reduced already, and more to come," she said.
The cuts are filtering down to county courtrooms.
Hennepin County, the state's busiest court district, handles roughly 40 percent of Minnesota's court cases. Chief Judge Lucy Wieland said the deficit there is $1.5 million. They balanced the budget with personnel cuts and service reductions.
"We cut an arbitration program in the civil area, we cut our conciliation court calender by about a third, we cut out all of our travel, our training, our law books," Wieland said.
Wieland says the four new judges sworn in a couple weeks ago were told they'll be doing without clerks and legal reporters for the first six months of their term.
A rising caseload is also contributing to the state courts deficit. Not every category is rising, but criminal cases and others that soak up court resources are increasing.
Judge George Harrelson, who hears cases in his Marshall courtroom in southwestern Minnesota, says tougher economic times also seem to increase court activity.
"I'm seeing a lot more evictions, a lot more cases where companies are seeking to enforce credit card debt," Harrelson said.
Harrelson said every Wednesday when he hears traffic violation cases, his courtroom looks like the United Nations -- filled with new residents from around the world who've settled in the Marshall area.
State law mandates translation services for anyone who doesn't understand English.
Another mandated service, psychological evaluations of defendants in criminal sex cases, is also driving up court costs.
In the past, lawmakers approved higher court fees to help pay state court system costs.
But State Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said he and many other lawmakers won't be supporting any additional fee increases.
Cohen is a practicing attorney when the Legislature isn't in session. And in the case of divorces, he said, the fee has become a hardship for some people.
"The $250 civil filing fee is just a huge fee," Cohen said. "I think it's going to be very difficult for us to allow any increases in fees."
Cohen said projections showing a decline in state revenues mean the courts shouldn't expect any more money from the Legislature, and will be lucky to avoid reductions.
"We're not looking to increase budgets," he said. "The question is can we avoid cutting budgets."
A likely outcome of what is becoming a chronic state courts budget deficit, Judge George Harrelson said, is shutting down some county courtrooms.
"I would not be surprised at all if, in the not too distant future, some of the smaller courthouses will be closing. We'll have more regional hubs and people will have to travel 30, 40, 50, 60 miles to the nearest courthouse that is still functioning," Harrelson said.
As for squeezing more productivity out of state courts judges to cope with the budget problem -- that apparently has already been done.
The Office of the Legislative Auditor concluded in a report a few years ago the state's judges carry a much higher caseload than their counterparts in other states.
- All Things Considered, 02/15/2008, 5:20 p.m.