Chief justice finds no good solutions for funding
WILLMAR -- The state's budget issues create a challenge for which there are no good solutions, only what Minnesota Chief Justice Eric Magnuson calls the "least bad" solutions.
If there is a good outcome to the budget, staffing and service cuts made in the Minnesota Judicial Branch, it is that judicial officials have educated the state's legislators, he said recently during at stop at the Kandiyohi County Courthouse.
During the past session, representatives of the judicial branch tried to inform lawmakers about what courts do and the impact budget cuts would have on the justice meted out every day at county courthouses across the state.
"The key was getting the understanding by the Legislature of the issues and consequences," Magnuson said.
The chief justice had already visited the courthouses, county and court officials and employees, in Grant, Stevens and Swift counties when he stopped a week ago in Willmar. His goal in traveling around the state was to see for himself how local officials are handling the situation.
"I wanted to get on the ground and see the impact of the cuts," he said. The Eighth District, which includes Kandiyohi County and 12 other counties in western Minnesota, had particularly been impacted by the budget cuts because it had staffing levels above that of other judicial districts.
"We simply don't have the money to staff at those levels," Magnuson said. "We have to staff every district at the same level."
Over the past three years, the Eighth District has seen $1 million in budget cuts, including the loss of 18 staff positions, according to District Chief Judge Paul Nelson.
Since March, a sequence of cuts has included the early retirement of two employees, voluntary hour and pay reductions by employees, the layoff of three employees and, most recently, the closure of court administration offices at 2 p.m. on Fridays.
The early closure amounts to a 6.2 percent pay cut for administrative employees, he said, but doesn't impact judges, court administrators, law clerks or court reporters.
It's too early to evaluate the impact of the early Friday closing, according to Teresa Fredrickson, court administrator in Kandiyohi, Swift and Meeker counties. Only three Fridays have passed since the change was made.
There will be an impact, Fredrickson cautioned, as there are 14 employees at the Kandiyohi County Courthouse each losing 2.5 hours of working time per week, along with the additional hour reductions taken by some employees in the voluntary round. She asked Magnuson to navigate the economic and budget issues with care and make actions "as painless as possible."
"We need solutions that build a bridge to somewhere," she stressed. That "somewhere" will include systems that allow for paperless complaints, with software that allows law enforcement, the county attorney's office and court administration to move charging documents electronically.
The "e-charging" system will be tested the week of Aug. 10 at the local courthouse, she said. If the complaint is signed by a judge, who determines if there is probable cause for the case, the system will also automatically create the court file, saving employee time and effort.
Fredrickson has also been advocating for a regional grant application by area law enforcement agencies for software that allows law enforcement officers to issue "e-citations" to citizens. The software would enter the ticket into the court's computer system without court employees having to enter the data. The court is also moving to a centralized payable ticket database, moving the payment of lower level citations from the local administration level.
Magnuson has set longer-term goals of working to get the funding for the judicial branch out of the economic cyclical environment, so that the processes and systems built during better economic times aren't torn down to save money during difficult financial times.
"Our long-term goal is to not have the courts connected to the economic cycle," he said, adding that educational efforts did impact the legislators. "I think we did convince the Legislature that we have been practicing good stewardship."