Chief Justice Lorie Gildea makes her case for everyone having a stake in a strong court system

Judge Lorie Gildea
Judge Lorie Gildea

Order in the banquet hall.

Here comes the judge — the chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, no less — and she is on a mission, and on message.

“Adequate court funding is essential to protecting the public safety.” Chief Justice Lorie Gildea told the St. Paul Rotary Club this afternoon. “Our system is under great strain. Justice itself is at stake.”

As she did today, she’s begun taking her campaign to stabilize funding for the court system to business groups, telling them how underfunding affects them just as much as it affects the guy with the mugshot on page B5 of the morning newspaper who is entitled to a speedy trial.

Her voice was firm, filling the large ballroom with urgency.

“I believe that Minnesotans expect and deserve a fully functional court system and, my friends, if we do nothing, we are in danger of losing that,” she told about 120 people at the Rotary’s regular luncheon. “So, what do I need? I need your help, to help the courts make our case … Our message is simple: We are necessary government, and we are good government.”

There were no objections.

The chief justice, who was appointed by former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, was passionate and crystal clear. Her third branch of government, which is funded by the other two, has gotten whacked like everyone else during the Pawlenty years. 

The courts system, with an annual budget of $285 million and 1.7 million cases a year, has lost $15 million from its state allotment the past two sessions. The courts lost 250 employees, “10 percent  fewer people than we need to do the work,”  she said.

Now, with a new governor and a new Legislature, Gildea is seeking to hold back the flood of cutbacks.

In her current budget request to Gov. Mark Dayton, Gildea is seeking only an increase for the “unavoidable” costs of health care and pension for employees. That would be a 1.24 percent increase, or about $6.75 million over two years.

For all other court needs, she is proposing no increase at all. She told MinnPost today that she is “hopeful” that further budget cuts won’t be coming. But, obviously, she is making sure that anyone who can hear her talking points will.

She has told court staff, “Wherever two or more people gather, I will carry the message.” The number of Gildea’s speaking gigs since taking over as chief justice last June has topped 50.  She has picked up the baton from her predecessor, Eric Magnuson, who helped launch the Coalition to Preserve Minnesota’s Justice System in 2009.

Taking care of businesss
If  the notion of justice somehow seems blatantly bleeding-heartsy — you know, overworked public defenders, abused children awaiting good homes, speedy trials not happening — Gildea speaks to that.

“Delays and backlogs are now becoming commonplace around our state,” she told the Rotarians at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in St. Paul. “One out of four serious felonies in our state now takes more than a year to get to trial. For 30 percent of abused children taken out of their homes, it takes more than a year for these children to learn where their permanent homes are going to be. These delays are not acceptable and they are not what Minnesotans have come to expect, and they are not what Minnesotans deserve.”

But recently she’s taken a turn in a different direction that also suggests a certain political savvy that one would expect from the state’s highest-ranking judge and legal administrator.

First, she outlined all the electronic improvements and cost-cutting measures the court system has introduced over the past few years, from interactive TV hearings to traffic tickets paid online. She showed them the courts are redesigning.

But then she said, “A strong adequately funded judiciary … matters to you, to Main Street, because Main Street needs a strong judiciary to protect the sanctity of contracts, the imperative of property, the privacy of due process and the security of securities.” These allow “free enterprise to struggle forward in Minnesota.”

She went on: “My friends, where are you going to go when the promises made in your contracts are not being followed? You’re going to go to the courts. You count on the courts.”

After her talk, Gildea told MinnPost that she is very eager to get the state’s business community involved in the judicial system conversation.

“We need their voice with the Legislature and the governor,” she said of business leaders. “It hasn’t been heard.”

We asked her if being such an advocate for an adequately funded court system doesn’t turn her into a quasi-political figure; how can the state’s top legal officer be so forceful in seeking funding in this current political environment? Is she stepping out of the role of nonpartisan judge?

Justice advocacy ‘part of my job’
“I think it’s a very essential part of the chief justice job,” she said. “I’m the administrative head of the branch. If not me, who?”

She went on: “I don’t think it is a partisan issue. I mean Republicans have to go to court. Democrats have to go to court. Independents have to go to court. Green Party people have to go to court, and we have to be there for all of them … It’s not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. It’s a Minnesota issue.”

This being the Rotary Club, there were door-prize goodie bags to distribute after the chief justice’s presentation. As the most unbiased person there, she was appointed the task of pulling tiny tickets out of a basket to determine winners of cookies, and she performed it with aplomb.

But after three lucky winners were selected, a wag who hadn’t won yelled from the back of the ballroom, “We demand a recount!”

Undeterred, she carried on, selecting another ticket, ruling favorably for another bag of cookies. With that, the Rotarians adjourned.

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