Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice: State's justice system "at the brink"

Lorie Skjerven Gildea
Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea address a news conference after Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced her appointment as Chief Justice of the court Thursday, May 13, 2010 in St. Paul, Minn.
AP Photo/Jim Mone

Lorie Gildea, chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, said Tuesday that part of the solution to addressing the justice system's budget woes is educating people about the its role in society.

Gildea has called on attorneys to form a grass roots campaign to educate the public about the connection between an adequately funded justice system and the safety and security of their communities.

"The justice system belongs to the people; it doesn't belong to judges and lawyers," Gildea told MPR's Morning Edition. "I think we should be talking to people about that."

Gildea said she agrees with former Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, who said the funding situation has put the court system at its "tipping point."

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"We really are at the brink," she said.

Funding decisions made by the executive and legislative branches have led to delays in the state court system, Gildea said. For example, small claims cases can take six to nine months to be resolved, she said.

"We have been running our operation about 10 percent short of the people we need to do the work," Gildea said.

Funding concerns for the state's judicial system have been gaining attention lately, especially after public defenders in southeastern Minnesota asked a judge to allow them to handle fewer cases.

Judge Casey Christian ruled that people have a constitutional right to an attorney, but that the public defenders should be able to hire private attorneys and send the bill to the state.

Gildea wouldn't comment on Christian's ruling, but she said the Constitution is clear about the right to representation.

"The obligation is in our Constitution to provide lawyers for people who are financially unable to do so," Gildea said.

Gildea said she plans to advocate for the justice system at the Legislature and also educate people about the steps the courts have taken to become more efficient, such as by setting up a way for people to pay traffic tickets online.

"I've met with a number of legislators and have been talking with them about how the judiciary has been a good steward of public money," she said. "I will go wherever I need to to make the case."

(MPR's Cathy Wurzer contributed to this report.)