Chief justice says Minnesota courts face uphill climb
Maintaining an impartial judiciary and providing justice to its citizens despite being underfunded by about $19 million are the biggest challenges the state courts face, Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson said during his State of...
Maintaining an impartial judiciary and providing justice to its citizens despite being underfunded by about $19 million are the biggest challenges the state courts face, Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson said during his State of the Judiciary address Tuesday at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.
Magnuson was appointed chief justice by Gov. Tim Pawlenty and was sworn in on June 3. He presented the address before about 100 people at the Minnesota State Bar Association annual convention.
He loosened up his audience by saying: "I've learned that the chief justice's job is 50 percent deciding cases, 50 percent administration and 50 percent PR. That's why there are so few math majors that take this job.''
There wasn't much humor in the rest of his message. Far from it.
The chief justice said funding for the state courts is a serious challenge. He compared it to a hospital room, "where we would close the door, look each other in the eye, and soberly walk through our options.''
Magnuson said the courts will be operating with 7 percent of staff positions unfilled, resulting in fewer people doing more work. There will be case processing delays and civil cases are going to be delayed, he said. Hours of public service windows will be shortened in some places. Cuts to public defender budgets will slow down criminal case processing.
"We can't allow the next legislative session to be a repeat of the last one; we can't sustain further cuts,'' he said. "We need to fund our basic employee costs. We have to pay our people what they deserve. We have to give them enough help so that they can get the work done. ... Our goal in the next legislative session must be to secure the resources needed to perform our constitutionally mandated function.''
The judicial branch is now fully funded by the state, as opposed to individual counties, and has about 3,000 employees at 99 locations.
Magnuson said he supports a system in which the governor selects judges based on merit, and then "retention elections" and public performance evaluations are held as a way to ensure an impartial judiciary.
Currently in Minnesota, judges run for election every six years and can be challenged by anyone learned in law. In a retention election, judges do not have opponents. Instead, voters decide whether to retain a judge in office. If a judge receives a simple majority of "yes'' votes, the judge may serve another term.
Magnuson said the last Wisconsin Supreme Court election should cause deep concerns for those who want an impartial judiciary.
"Millions of dollars were spent by special interest groups on ads attacking the candidates as freeing criminals or engaging in political cronyism,'' Magnuson said of the April election. "Well-heeled special interests attempting to manipulate the judicial process are no longer the stuff of fictional thrillers written by John Grisham. It's reality. It's reality that's right next door.''
Magnuson, whose parents are from Duluth, was a lawyer for 30 years and was chairman of the Judicial Selection Commission for five years.
St. Cloud lawyer Mike Ford, president of the Minnesota State Bar Association, said the two most important parts of Magnuson's address for the public to know is that the judiciary's goal in Minnesota is to remain nonpolitical and to keep adequate funding in place.
When told that there's been no evidence of the judiciary in Northeastern Minnesota becoming politicized, Ford said: "That's the prevailing view. I see it as the Lake Wobegon conceit. We have this notion that since we're Minnesota that it just can't happen here, and yet, in states with very good judges and very good lawyers, it does happen.''
MARK STODGHILL covers public safety and courts. He can be reached weekdays at (218) 723-5333 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .