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Minnesota’s chief justice on cuts in the court system and challenges ahead

Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea shown questioning attorney Marc Elias (not pictured) during the Franken-Coleman recount in June 2009.
AP/Ben Garvin
Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea shown questioning attorney Marc Elias (not pictured) during the Franken-Coleman recount in June 2009.

If you think you’ve heard this one before, you’re wrong. Yes, you’ve read about the crisis in court funding. And yes, you’ve read about a crusading chief justice appealing to lawmakers for the money the system needs to function as the founders intended it to. But this is a new chief and soon a new Legislature. And ask anybody who has been around for a while: this time the stakes are higher.

Minnesota Chief Justice Lorie Skjervan Gildea was appointed in May. She is the public face of a judicial branch where 250 positions have been cut since 2008; judicial vacancies are held open for at least four months to save money; and public service counters in more than half of Minnesota’s judicial districts must close for a half day each week (want to understand the toll of this seemingly minor step? Go sit by one of these counters when they’re closed and listen for the constant refrain: “I took time off work to come down here!”).

Gildea is in an unenviable position — though she claims to relish it. In October, she submitted a budget request that will ultimately be taken up by our now Republican-controlled Legislature (you can read the request at the bottom of this post). She didn’t ask for much, and she may get much less.

I spoke with Gildea about the courts crisis at her office, mere shouting distance from the State Capitol building.

MinnPost: A lawyer I was speaking to recently described your role as “the go-to person for a healthy and functioning court system.” How do you describe your role?

I see myself as the chief lobbyist for the justice system. It’s important that we talk about the justice system. The courts need to be adequately funded, but all legs of the stool need to be adequately funded for the system to work efficiently. The public defenders are in crisis mode, they need to be funded; the prosecutors need to be funded; law enforcement needs to be funded; civil legal services need to be funded. And so I’m a lobbyist for the whole justice system. I embrace it, I really do — it’s a tremendous honor.

MP: Let’s talk about the public defender system. It’s a broken system. The load people are carrying is crushing and there has been a clear toll on the quality of constitutionally guaranteed defense provided to the poorest Minnesotans. One public defender described the situation as a constitutional crisis. Is that language too strong?

I’m pausing here only because we have cases that we have to decide that involve issues of effectiveness of counsel and questions of the right to counsel. I want to be careful so I don’t put myself in a place where I’m compromising my ability to sit on cases.

I want to do everything I can to help the public defenders, I think they’re in a crisis situation. Some of the best lawyers appearing before our court top to bottom are the lawyers from the public defender’s office. The system doesn’t work without them and the people of Minnesota should be involved in helping move this conversation forward.

MP: I’m hearing from judges who have a real fear that they are making mistakes because they are overloaded and the courts are understaffed.

Yes. I wish we had enough judges so they could take the time that they feel they need to take. I wish we had enough money so that we had enough public defenders so that the public defenders could take the time that they need to take. I wish I could fix that. I wish I could make wave a magic wand and fix that.

Our case study shows we need something in excess of 20 judges. And given the reality of the state’s fiscal crisis we’re not asking for additional judges in our budget request.

MP: Do you feel you’d be opening yourself to criticism by requesting more money to add judges when every branch and every agency is crunched?

I think credibility is very important. The request that we submitted in October was what I characterize as a hold-harmless request. The new money we’ve asked for is to fund unavoidable costs: things like increases in health insurance and increases in pension pay required by contracts or state law.

Given the reality facing the state we’re not going to ask for what we want. What I’ve said to the Legislature is we will ask you for what we need, and we hope you’ll give it to us. If circumstances change and we have a reason to re-evaluate, we’re going to do that.

MP: Is it hard to engage people who aren’t directly involved in the justice system?

People don’t want to think about the court system. They think, “That’s where people in trouble go and I’m never in trouble.” But what does it mean to say somebody is in trouble? It means somebody in the community is in trouble — that has an impact on the community, which has an impact on you.

But it’s much more broad than people in trouble. Family law, divorce — traffic tickets for heaven’s sake! We have to get the people of Minnesota to understand that the court system doesn’t exist for judges and lawyers — it’s for them. Maybe they don’t need it today, but maybe somebody in their family or somebody they know will need it tomorrow — and it needs to be there.

We need to hit that head on. We don’t have a parade of cute kindergarteners that we can march in front of the legislature.

MP: Where are you at in the budget process right now?

We submitted a request on October 15th. That’s very preliminary. Everything will kick into high gear when we have a new governor and a new legislature.

But the numbers aren’t going to change dramatically. It doesn’t matter who gets elected governor, the state is still facing a $6 billion deficit.

MP: When you explain your mission to win adequate funding for the courts, do people understand that you’re talking about a branch of government — not merely some government agency?

We need to hit that head on too. We are necessary government. I don’t want to have a conversation where it’s either this or that. We are only 2 percent of the state’s budget and we can’t turn people away. I think it was Chief Justice Magnuson who described us as having the largest front door in the state of Minnesota — and we do.

Somebody asked me the other day, “What do you lay awake at night worrying about?” I worry about the woman who needs an order for protection and it isn’t issued in a timely way — or the arrest warrant that isn’t issued in a timely way.

We can’t put people in prison we’re afraid of if we don’t have a fully functioning justice system. I don’t want to be about scaring people — I really don’t. But I’ll go there if I have to to make the point.

Minnesota Judicial Branch FY 2012-13 Budget Request

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/04/2010 - 09:15 am.

    Judges just can’t be a budget priority. They will have to find a way to work harder, longer, and producitively. Excuses aren’t a solution.

  2. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/04/2010 - 09:25 am.

    I noted two spelling errors in the article: 1) you misspell “counsel” as c-o-u-n-c-i-l. And you misspell “injustice system” as “j-u-s-t-i-c-e s-y-s-t-e-m”. But those might be attributable to the Chief Justice. I’m trying hard to get my head around a right wing Republican member of the Supreme Court talking about a crisis in the court system and:

    “We have to get the people of Minnesota to understand that the court system doesn’t exist for judges and lawyers — it’s for them.”

    Is that so, Chief Justice? Is a court system that charges people over $300 per side to open a case file, $100.00 per side for each motion, $550 to file an appeal or a petition to a Supreme Court that issues “petition denied” like kleenex existing for the people of Minnesota or for your corporate retainers? The appellate system created thirty or so years ago is an assembly factor line that churns out unpublished rubber stamped opinions by the gross. This Supreme Court accepts no ownership of the crisis in the courts has no solutions except ironically to throw money at it. They cannot see that the state of the so-called “justice system” goes right back to their idiotic, Mickey Mouse procedural rules and ideological rulings. As Jesus told the people of Nazareth: “Physician heal thyself”!

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/04/2010 - 09:55 am.

    “The new money we’ve asked for is to fund unavoidable costs: things like increases in health insurance and increases in pension pay required by contracts or state law.”

    It only became unavoidable when those contracts were signed and that legislation was passed.

    It’s a new world out here, time to renegotiate contracts and re-consider legislation to fit the new realities. That’s a truth the entire public sector is going to be forced to embrace in the coming years.

    Also, people are going to have to stop to consider the costs of the failed “war on drugs”. Drug money is responsible for the approaching collapse of the Mexican government.

    The US is a bigger pump for drug lords to prime, but that is only true temporarily; our turn is coming.

    De-criminalization is clearly the lesser of evils here. Take the profit out of drugs, and you remove 50% of the motive that drives 80% of our crime.

  4. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/04/2010 - 11:00 am.

    #3: On de-criminalization of drugs: I agree.

  5. Submitted by Michael Hunt on 11/04/2010 - 12:13 pm.

    This is my third attempt to write this. Can’t stop giggling.

    A T-Paw, Tea Party appointment who suddenly has issues with the “no new taxes” mantra when it’s her ox being gored! Who woulda thunk it?

    Whether it’s this, Social Security, yadda, yadda, yadda…..Hey Lorie…suddenly YOU’RE “necessary gov’t”! Tea Party my ___. What a bunch of frauds!

  6. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 11/04/2010 - 03:26 pm.

    1) I agree with Judge Gildea that the public needs (desperately) to learn about the court system, how underfunding affects them, how it affects those who are entitled to a speedy trial and a competent defense, and how it affects those who are asked to provide that defense to many times more defendants than is humanly possible.

    Might retired lawyers and judges produce a series of talks/discussions in Twin Cities neighborhoods and small town meeting places?

    2) Re: Overcrowded prisons. Might the governor and board of pardons end the terms of non-violent offenders early and return them to society with the warning that to re-offend would mean serving both the remainder of the first offense and all the time given for the second?

    3) Many citizens are unaware also of the right-wing attack on the impartiality of courts in Minnesota and other states.

    Religious fundamentalist voters in Iowa just voted three supreme court justices (running unopposed for re-election) out of office, leaving their positions vacant, because the justices didn’t vote their way on the legality of gay marriage (see the Nov. 4 NY Times). These voters need to take another look at the First Amendment. The part about not placing one religious belief above others.

    In Minnesota, four judicial candidates (two for the supreme court, one for the appeals court, and one for a district court) endorsed by the Republican Party and a group called Justice in Minnesota, are trying to politicize the justice system by opening statewide election of justices to party endorsement, unlimited fundraising and ideological and/or attack advertising. All four are strict constitutional constructionists like Anthony Scalia; at least two are religious fundamentalists who want to bring God into the courtroom. They lost this time, but will no doubt be back to try again.

  7. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 11/04/2010 - 04:07 pm.

    If we want to get the “public’s” attention, (at least the ones who count to the “no new taxes types” all we need to do is create a new “procedural rule” that prioritizes court spending and time spent on courts cases so that those with the least status, the least money and the most to lose (their freedom or their well being, for instance) go FIRST…

    and leave the high profile cases in which one corporation sues another or one highly offended wealthy individual sues another for later: “whenever we get around to it.”

    If we stop giving the people who don’t want to pay taxes their time in court for their big money, high profile cases, it’s likely they’ll come to understand the necessity of paying taxes to fund the court system much more rapidly.

    And of course, all the delaying tactics and high fees for access to the courts are PRECISELY the result of underfunding. If you want the courts to be more free, more accessible, and speedier, you should be calling, e-mailing, or writing your legislator to demand more funding.

    If you’re not willing to do that, then get in line behind everybody else and stop whining.

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