Local Judge's View: Access to justice hinges on better pay for court employees
From the column: "We have to be able to attract the next generation of judges from across the legal profession or the quality of the bench is going to decline."
The Legislature is currently in session and trying to decide funding priorities for a significant budget surplus. There are many worthy causes competing for some of these funds, including returning a portion directly to taxpayers.
The Minnesota Judicial Branch has put forth a request for a budget increase. That request should receive full consideration.
I have worked in the Duluth courthouse for more than 20 years. I have never seen staff turnover issues like we currently are experiencing. Statewide, staff departure rates increased by 52% from fiscal years 2019 to 2022. We have lost some very capable people not just to the private sector but to other public agencies.
With so many newer employees, the overall efficiency of the process suffers when you come to the courthouse or submit a filing. We have some good people who have stayed, but the constant turnover is wearing them out. The court system has to be able to recruit and retain staff to achieve our mission, and compensation is a major component of how we do that. Our court staff are long overdue for a significant pay raise.
Not long after I started as a judge in 2010, I was able to hire a judicial law clerk. This position is a confidential employee who helps me draft orders, do legal research, and manage trial logistics. It is a crucial position that helps me handle my workload in a timely fashion. I received more than 80 applications for that position my first time hiring. The last time I hired, I had about 10. Fortunately, I was still able to get a very good clerk, but the talent pool for these positions is shrinking rapidly, and many of the law clerks we hire are moving on to their next job faster.
Some judges, particularly in rural locations, cannot attract applicants at all. It is not hard to see why: Our judicial law clerks make almost $20,000 less in annual salary than the lowest-paid public attorneys in other agencies. That salary level is just not sustainable, and it needs to change.
Full disclosure: the budget request also includes a pay raise for judges. This is always a difficult topic for a sitting judge to address. We receive a relatively high salary for public employees, and I am close enough to retirement that a pay raise is not likely to affect my plans one way or another. However, Minnesota judges rank in the bottom half nationally for annual salary, and that has been trending downward over the long term. Applications for judicial vacancies are down.
I personally know two judges who recently left the bench well before retirement age and several more who are considering it. This would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. We have to be able to attract the next generation of judges from across the legal profession or the quality of the bench is going to decline.
The Minnesota Judicial Branch has faced significant challenges recently. We were able to maintain court operations during the pandemic by better utilizing technology, improving safety protocols, and employing innovative calendars to reduce the inevitable backlog. But that hard work has taken a toll.
The courts need to keep pay in a competitive corridor or access to justice will suffer.
Dale Harris of Duluth is a judge in the 6th Judicial District.