Northern Minn. counties worry about losing court services

Lake County Courthouse
The Lake County Courthouse in Two Harbors, Minn. Rumors have been circulating for months in northern Minnesota that some counties in that region may lose their courthouses because of budget cutbacks. State court officials insist that's not true.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Residents of northeastern Minnesota were rocked this fall by reports that courthouses in Lake and Cook counties could soon be shuttered, apparently meaning that people with business before the courts would have to journey for hours to regional trial centers in places like Duluth or Virginia.

State court officials say nothing of the sort is in the works, but the rumors persist.

The trouble started in September, when retiring 6th District Judge Kenneth Sandvik raised alarm about the fate of rural courts. The longtime Lake County judge told county commissioners they should be prepared to lose their court services altogether, if a looming state deficit forces draconian cuts to the state courts budget.

Statewide, cuts have already trimmed the courts' workforce by some 250 positions, or 7 percent, since 2008.

"We are getting very close the point where Lake and Cook will not have enough bodies to run a 40-hour operation," Sandvik said.

Sandvik's comments fanned rumors that have circulated for more than a year -- that a special courts committee had drawn up plans to close more than a dozen courthouses in rural, remote, and thinly populated Minnesota counties.

State court officials insist the rumors are not true. But residents and officials in remote counties still worry about the possibility of being forced to travel hours for even routine court proceedings, like challenging a traffic ticket.

Judge Sandvik
6th District Judge Kenneth Sandvik is retiring after 26 years on the bench in Lake County. Earlier this fall, Sandvik said he believed Lake and Cook counties in northern Minnesota are in danger of losing their courthouses because of budget cuts. State officials say that's not the case.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Cook County Commission Chair Fritz Sobanja says without local courts, county prosecutors, defendants and prisoners would all have to be transported to regional court locations like Duluth, 120 miles away. He says it would be an unfair burden dumped on budget-strapped counties by a budget-strapped state.

The concerns can go beyond cost and inconvenience, according to 6th District Chief Public Defender Fred Friedman in Duluth. Friedman says small-town residents worry about losing their courthouse.

"What do they have?" Friedman asked. "They have their high school, their sports and their courthouse. That's what they have."

But closing courthouses wouldn't be easy or cheap. The state Constitution gives Minnesotans a right to trial by a jury from their county.

"Do I think people in small-town America worry about it? Absolutely. Do I think it's going to happen? No," said Friedman.

Neither does Judge John Rodenberg in New Ulm, who chaired the state court system's Access and Service Delivery Committee last year. The committee did discuss closing courthouses that now lack a chambered judge. But Rodenberg said the panel, made up mostly of state judges, rejected the idea.

The committee quickly determined there were no cost savings to be had by closing court in counties where tickets are still issued, people still file for divorce, and victims still seek protection orders.

Rodenberg said the courts are taking other approaches to budget challenges, including using digital technology so people in low-volume courthouses can work on on cases from other counties.

But, even in the state's largest counties, Rodenberg says access to court services may diminish further. Court windows in many counties, including Ramsey, now close one afternoon each week so staff can catch up. That kind of thing may become more widespread.

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