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

Lorie Gildea is the public face of a judicial branch where 250 positions have been cut since 2008. “We can’t put people in prison we’re afraid of if we don’t have a fully functioning justice system,” she says.

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