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Court officials worry about budget

ST. PAUL - Finding justice will be tougher for Minnesotans if proposed budget cuts materialize, court officials from across the state tell legislators.

"We are rapidly approaching a crisis in our court administration offices that will have a detrimental effect on the people who serve and those who rely upon our work," Chief Judge Gary Schurrer of the 10th Judicial District wrote to lawmakers.

Minnesota court officials for years have said they need more money to keep up with a growing caseload - 2 million cases are filed each year. But comments like Schurrer's take it a step beyond those earlier comments.

If lawmakers enact a 4 percent budget cut proposed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, some court offices could close, hours may be trimmed in other offices, all courts would experience delays and expenses would rise for the other state agencies and counties, Chief Justice Russell Anderson said in an interview.

"Justice delayed is justice denied," Anderson added.

He and other court leaders say 15 percent of court jobs will be cut if lawmakers approve Pawlenty's plan.

Pawlenty proposed a 4 percent budget cut in many state agencies as part of the solution for a $935 million budget deficit. He said that balancing the budget will require compromise and sacrifice.

Even with his proposed cuts, Pawlenty said state spending is expected to increase by 9.2 percent.

"The rate of growth over a two-year budget cycle is still very substantial and in many ways still too high," Pawlenty said.

Legislative committees are considering Pawlenty's proposal, but it could be weeks before decisions are made.

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Tarryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud, said she has heard concerns from Anderson and a judge from her area.

"They're frankly just trying to figure out how they're supposed to make more (cuts) when they already have a hole in their budget," Clark said.

Clark and House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said it is too soon to know what type of funding cuts the court system could see this year.

Anderson and state Court Administrator Sue Dosal said this is an especially bad time for cuts, given the state of the economy.

Criminal cases usually rise during economic downturns. And, Clark said, cuts to the judicial branch could delay the administration of justice at a time when foreclosure and divorce rates are up.

Decisions have not been made, but it is likely that court offices will close in a dozen counties without resident judges. Some suburban Twin Cities court offices also probably will close.

Among other cuts Minnesotans can expect are:

-- Reduced hours of service in court offices.

-- Closing lesser-used rural and suburban court offices.

-- Closing drug courts, despite experience that shows they keep many people out of prison and save money.

-- Trimmed services to Minnesotans who represent themselves in court.

-- Reduced civil legal services.

-- Delayed cases.

Since most of the court budget is personnel, judicial leaders say they have no choice but to eliminate jobs if they have to cut more than they already have.

Court officials say they already have eliminated 207 jobs in the current budget, which is less than a year old. Many jobs were vacant, so people were not laid off.

Also, the courts have begun voluntary unpaid leave programs and early retirement programs, as well as cutting some public office hours and other moves. Those moves were taken to fill what court leaders considered an earlier $13 million funding shortfall.

"We are going to continue to study efficiencies," Anderson said.

Before making drastic cuts, the chief justice said, court officials will "have a conversation about core values and what the Legislature would want us not to do."

The court staff is about 3,000, with another 300 judges.

Pawlenty's proposed cuts would remove $9 million more from the courts' $300 million annual budget. That would mean eliminating another 222 jobs. When combined with previous cuts, that means 15 percent of the workforce would be gone.

Dosal told a House committee that means cuts the public will see.

"We are going to have to look at how many court locations can be afforded in Minnesota," she said.

Ironically, as courts take such actions to save the judicial budget, other entities' budgets will increase.

For instance, if cases are delayed, many criminal suspects will remain in jail longer, adding to county costs. Law enforcement departments, county attorneys and others will need to drive further if court offices close.

And the courts may not be able to collect the $200 million they do now, meaning state and county government coffers would suffer.

Rep. Dave Olin, DFL-Thief River Falls, had suggestions about saving court money. For instance, the former Pennington County attorney said, oftentimes in northwestern Minnesota there are two public defenders on the case compared to one county attorney, showing an excess of public defenders.

He said if court officials close offices in the four northwest Minnesota counties without full-time judges, residents there will see that as the beginning of the end for county government.

"Do you want a revolt in northwestern Minnesota?" he asked Dosal during a recent hearing.

"Our hands are pretty much tied," Dosal replied.

So far, no legislator has produced a plan to cover the $9 million in proposed cuts.

Assistant chief Judge Edward Lynch of the 1st Judicial District, which includes his home of Dakota County, said that budget shortfalls of the past few years have exhausted most money-saving measures.

"I don't think there are any more rabbits in the hat," Lynch said. "The question becomes, who do we send away? Who do we ignore? Who do we delay?"

In the 1st Judicial District, which includes Goodhue and Dakota counties, Chief Judge William Macklin said, 15 employees would lose their jobs if the Pawlenty cuts are enacted. When combined with recent job cuts, that is more than 13 percent of the workforce.

"The cuts in staff required by these budget decisions will result in significant delays in addressing the important matters the people of Minnesota bring to court for resolution," Macklin said in a recent report. "It cannot be emphasized enough that the judicial branch provides a core government function mandated by the constitution, an essential function needed to ensure public safety, economic stability and to provide protection for vulnerable children and adults."

In the 10th Judicial District, which includes Washington County, the branch office in Cottage Grove already is slated for closing at the end of June. Up to 200 cases are heard a day there, Chief Judge Gary Schurrer said.

The judge said that means residents of Cottage Grove, Woodbury, Newport and St. Paul Park would have to travel to Stillwater for court-related work.

"The inconvenience to the public is significant," he said.

Besides the drive, the public would have a harder time finding an open court office.

"Some of our courts will close one morning a week in an effort to provide our staff with uninterrupted work time," Schurrer said.

"We are simply at the point that I fear for the integrity and data quality of our case processing system," he said. "Some court administration offices are falling weeks behind in data entry

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.