Minnesota's courts fulfill a core function of government -- providing justice to the citizens of this state. Article I, section 1 of the state Constitution says that the object of government is to provide for the security, benefit and protection of the people. Government does that by passing laws. The courts are where those laws are enforced.
Article 1, section 6 provides that in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial. And Article I, section 8 provides that in civil cases, every person is entitled to a certain remedy, promptly and without delay, conformable to the laws.
These basic rights, guaranteed by our Constitution, are at serious risk as a result of past and proposed cuts to the budget of the Minnesota justice system. Case processing delays are growing throughout the state, and more cuts will only serve to increase those delays.
The time it takes to get a hearing before a judge has doubled in many areas. It can take as long as year to get a criminal case to trial. It can take six to eight months to get a hearing on a claim in conciliation court, which handles civil disputes under $7,500. It can take six months or more to get a hearing on a child custody dispute. The list goes on.
As delays in criminal case processing grow, so do the threats of having cases dismissed or convictions overturned because the state failed to provide a constitutionally guaranteed speedy trial. It happened twice last year on appeal in significant felony cases, because the courts were compelled to follow the provisions of the state Constitution.
Minnesota's courts handle more than 2 million cases a year: traffic violations, business disputes, fights over child custody and child support; charges of criminal wrongdoing that result in arrests, and prolonged stays in a local jail as a case is processed. Chances are that if you weren't involved in a court matter last year, someone you know was.
I can assure Minnesotans that the justice system is aggressively employing strategies to contain costs. Our judges and employees will not be getting raises in the two years of the current biennium. We have instituted a hiring freeze, a voluntary separation program and leave without pay, layoffs and voluntary furloughs. In the Eighth District all employees have taken a reduction in work hours, resulting in a cut in pay. We are holding open judicial vacancies for a minimum of four months.
As a result, the Judicial Branch is operating nearly 10 percent short staffed, with more than 250 vacancies. Proposed budget cuts could force a reduction of 75 to 100 more positions, which will translate into even greater delays in case processing and public service.
Counters that serve the public in over half of the districts are now closed up to a half day a week. We closed a juvenile drug court in Chisago County, and I'm sorry to say that the future of many of our very successful remaining drug courts is in doubt.
In all this cutting of the justice system there is one thing we must not lose track of, our core mission: to provide justice through a system that assures equal access for the fair and timely resolution of disputes. The basic object of government is to provide for public safety and ensure the rule of law. Our citizens have the right to demand it. Adequately funding Minnesota's justice system is not an option -- it is an obligation.
Eric J. Magnuson is Minnesota's chief justice.