GRANITE FALLS -- Rural residents may find the road to justice getting a lot longer, and not always available at the local courthouse.
Budget cuts now being discussed could ultimately force courts to reduce hours of service in many courthouses and concentrate services in larger, regional centers where more efficient staffing is possible.
More of the state's rural counties could find themselves without a chambered judge: Positions are already being left vacant when retirements occur.
If a five percent budget cut is imposed, courts will no longer handle cases like civil harassment, worthless checks, juvenile delinquency -- such as truancies, runaways and implied consent -- and juvenile traffic and parking violations.
If the cuts are deeper, courts would be forced to no longer accept a wider range of cases.
"The rule of law is at stake," District Judge Paul Nelson remarked Saturday. Nelson, who serves as the chief judge for the 13 counties in the rural Eighth Judicial District, also serves as chair of the judiciary's court operations and policy committee. He outlined the possible repercussions of state budget cuts to state Sen. Gary Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls, and state Rep. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, during an "eggs and issues" session.
The courts have already taken a wide range of actions to reduce costs. There is a state-wide hiring freeze in place, early retirements are being allowed and vacant positions are not filled.
That could have immediate implications for the courts in Chippewa, Lac qui Parle and Yellow Medicine counties. Currently, Nelson and Judge Bruce Christopherson serve the three counties, but Christopherson, who is 70, plans to retire this year.
Nelson said courts have been trimming staff and costs in anticipation of the state's budget challenges. Any further cuts can only be managed by reductions in what courts handle.
The state's budget forecast, which is to be issued Tuesday, will shape the debate on the cuts that will be imposed. The courts' operations and policy committee will meet March 12 to determine just how to manage the expected cuts, he said.
Nelson noted that the judicial branch operates on a budget of just over $300 million, representing 1.8 percent of the state's overall budget.
Court fines, fees and other revenues total over $200 million and are annually provided to cities, counties, and the state. That source of revenue would almost certainly decline, he warned.