Chief Justice: Courts need an additional $43 million

Chief Justice Eric Magnuson
Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, center, talks about the need for more funding for the state court system at a news conference Wednesday. He is joined by other law enforcement and courts officials including Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, far left, and Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom, near left.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Stawicki

Flanked by county attorneys, sheriffs, public defenders and district judges, Chief Justice Eric Magnuson said the entire court system in Minnesota is already $19 million short and will suffer under a 10 percent budget cut. Magnuson stood with members of a group he convened, The Coalition to Preserve the Minnesota Judicial System, which has banded together to support each other's legislative funding requests.

Magnuson said the the 10 percent reduction would force the court system to cut 300-400 jobs, which would mean it would be unable to process hundreds of thousands of cases.

"Trespass, worthless checks, traffic and ordinance violations, juvenile truancy, runaways, underage drinking, consumer credit disputes, property related and small civil claims. Imagine we take all that off the table because we can't do it," Magnuson said. Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom spoke on behalf of Minnesota prosecutors and said in addition, the courts won't be able to process harassment cases, putting many people in the state at risk of harm.

"There are over 10,000 filings for harassment cases each year in Minnesota courts," Backstrom said. "These are very volatile situations that can quickly escalate to serious violence if proper and timely intervention does not occur."

The state's chief public defender, John Stuart, said if the courts have to cut their budget and the public defenders must cut theirs, defendants will have to spend more time in jail because their cases will be delayed.

"Our jails are already overcrowded, people will be in jail who shouldn't be there," Stuart said. "It means evidence will be lost for both the prosecution and the defense as cases age and age."

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Chief Justice Magnuson said the court is revising its request for new money. Late last year, Gov. Pawlenty called the court's budget request out of line because it included employee pay raises. Now, Magnuson said that instead of asking for an additional $54 million, he will ask for $43 million. He said the courts are eliminating what they can, pay raises for judges.

"We've told the governor we're open to considering anything that the state, as a whole, can do to look at pay freezes," Magnuson said. "But when we gave him the budget request, it had pay increases that we're obligated to pay by reason of union contracts."

At least one legislator is doubtful that the courts and public safety system in general will be successful in their budget request.

DFL State Representative Michael Paymar, of St. Paul, heads the House Public Safety Finance Committee. Paymar said the court system is a core government function, but unless the governor and Legislature are willing to raise revenue, he'd be surprised if the courts get an additional $43 million. He said they'll be lucky to avoid taking a budget cut.

"If the governor and the legislature aren't willing to go down that road, then I fear that the cuts that the judge and others in the criminal justice system fear may happen, and the results, are not going to be pleasant for people who want to use the court system," Paymar said.

Minnesota's court system is not alone. Many state court budgets around the U.S. are in financial trouble including Florida, Arizona, and California.