Incoming GOP chair of state Senate Judiciary Committee: ‘We are near a constitutional crisis’

Warren Limmer
Warren Limmer

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.”

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Brian Simon on 12/15/2010 - 09:58 am.

    Who was that guy, I forget his name now, but he said something interesting about issues like this one. I think it went like this:

    “Taxes are the price we pay for civilized society.”

    Perhaps the conservative concerned with civil liberties will realize that freedom does not come for free.

  2. Submitted by Josh McCabe on 12/15/2010 - 11:04 am.

    Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said that, by most accounts. It’s very pertinent now isn’t it?

    The right wants to pretend at all costs that the problem is “overspending” and “waste” in government. That has a few more months of shelf life, but that’s about it. No getting around it now though, the tax base that used to support all the things we like, like a judiciary system that works, education system that is fair and functional, blah blah blah (more liberal tripe) is just not there any more. It’s been cut beyond reason. Pawlenty is responsible, and hoping very much that no one will be able to make the case that he raided more than just the Judiciary. This is just the beginnings of public realization of exactly what’s been done, and how it will now play out. We’ll know that the tide of lies about how “we just need to be more efficient” is turning when some of the more realistic republican legislators start publically recognizing the impossibility of governing our state without raising taxes back to a more realistic level. Soon, I think we’ll start to see it. It’s not really a choice, just a question of how long it takes the system to fully decompose now that it’s been eviscerated by the republicans. Once the terrible nature of our fiscal freefall is fully apparent to the public in maybe a year or so, they’ll begin to turn the other direction and agree to actually restore the tax base to something closer to what it was. It’s not going to be politically viable to do anything else once the pain hits the public in the face.

    You can bet that Tim Pawlenty will be long gone by then, and that he’ll have some clever explanation for how it had nothing to do with him.

  3. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 12/15/2010 - 11:18 am.

    For those whose mantra is starve the beast: here are the consequences.

  4. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 12/15/2010 - 11:25 am.

    I think the Republicans who won back the legislature are starting to find out their buddy, TPaw, left them in a bad way. I’ll bet most of them wish they had supported the balanced approach offered by the Democrats over the last few years.

    The courts are just the canary in the mine.

    If the Republicans think they can balance this budget through cuts alone, this budget crisis might just become a constitutional crisis because the Minnesota Constitution says it is the state’s responsibility to educate children. And people won’t tolerate a 300 percent increase in public college tuition. And I don’t think the public will stand for having Aunt Sally kicked of the nursing home.

  5. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/16/2010 - 08:22 am.

    …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….

    Well, here it comes, the Republican reintroduction of “indulgences”.

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