If justice delayed is justice denied, a lot of Minnesotans are getting turned down at the courthouse door.
“We delay divorces, we delay conciliation court, a lot of the civil cases are delayed,” according to Tom Neuville, judge in the 3rd judicial district in Rice County.
To Neuville’s former legislative colleague and incoming chair of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, Republican Warren Limmer of Maple Grove, “We are near a constitutional crisis.”
Limmer and others say the crisis has been precipitated by several cycles of budget cuts proposed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty and softened only slightly by the Legislature. “Pawlenty raided the court financing a little too deeply,” he said.
Limmer, a self-described “conservative civil libertarian,” says his mission as the new judiciary chair is to save the judicial branch from further cuts by invoking the Constitution. “We are guaranteed a swift process,” he said.
And Limmer offers an additional argument. “Criminal defense lawyers are beginning to use the ‘speedy trial’ argument to avoid prosecutions,” he said. “If we can’t fund our courts, the fear is that jail cells will be opened. I don’t want that to happen on my watch.”
The main bullet in Limmer’s budget strategy is to make lawmakers understand that the courts are a critical function of government that must get high priority in funding, i.e., shift money from one part of the budget to another. “We have lost focus on what is the core,” he said. “The judiciary is mandated to protect our civil liberties.”
There’s the possibility of raising court fees.”These are limited but they have to be examined,” Limmer says, who added that expanding technology should also be explored.
As in other government functions, there’s already an “e” component in the courts: E-Charging, E-Citations, E-Complaints, along with hearings by videoconferencing and touchpad phone payment of fines. These practices are not statewide, says Limmer, but they should be.
Neuville suggests another form of efficiency – reclassifying certain kinds of low-level misdemeanors. “These can be ‘payable offenses’ where the offender just pays the fine instead of going to court,” he says.
He points out that it’s tough for lawmakers to make such changes. “Politically people can argue they are soft on crime,” he said. “But as a practical matter judges don’t put these people in jail. They order them to pay a fine.”
Once someone does shows up in court, he or she has a right to a lawyer and a jury. Neuville offers an anecdote that borders on absurd: “Just last week, a guy charged with shoplifting a can of beer and can of pop wanted a public defender and a jury trial.”Neuville said the man got a free lawyer, the jury and a conviction. “It took time away from the real serious issues.”
Limmer, Neuville and other advocates of judicial funding acknowledge theirs is an uphill battle. “The judicial branch has no constituency so it’s an easy target for raiding,” says Limmer. “Even to get flat funding is going to get really tough this year,” Neuville acknowledges. “And first-year legislators get pulled in so many directions.”
Limmer is actually trying to make a case for a funding increase. “I can make a fiscal conservative argument that is constitutionally based and accepted by conservatives.”
Judges will add another argument: justice requires time and attention. “There’s only so much you can do with efficiency,” says Neuville. “You have to let people argue their case sufficiently. You have to give people the time.”