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Court leaders warn: 'Rule of law at stake'

Chief Justice Eric Magnuson makes a public plea for more money for the courts and related judicial organizations. He said on Wednesday that short of a budget increase, Minnesotans will feel the impact with massive case delays. Staff photo by Don Davis

ST. PAUL - Minnesota's court system already is in a financial crisis that only will get worse - with long delays in cases - if legislators and the governor chop its budget, a coalition of judicial organizations claims.

"Nothing less than the rule of law is at stake," Eric Magnuson said Wednesday in a rare chief justice news conference.

In a news conference with dozens of other legal leaders, Magnuson said: "We are going to have to ask the question: 'What part of justice do you want us not to do?'"

Even court supporters say that is not the right question.

"I would expect the battle to be: Who gets cut how much?" said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, a Senate leader and an attorney.

Magnuson's two predecessors complained that the court system already is overburdened and budget cuts in recent years have hurt. But the current chief justice, in office slightly more than half a year, is the first to call the situation a crisis.

Rural areas, especially, could be hit by budget cuts. Poor Minnesotans, who rely on public defenders, also would be affected more than others.

Magnuson said lesser-used courthouses could be closed, and court hours cut in rural and suburban areas. Most of the courts with little action are in northern Minnesota.

State Public Defender John Stuart said rural areas will be hard hit because their caseloads are lighter than elsewhere.

The state faces a budget deficit that many predict will top $6 billion by the time legislators and Gov. Tim Pawlenty are done crafting a two-year budget that begins July 1. Pawlenty has asked each state department to reduce spending 10 percent.

However, Magnuson wants $43 million more for courts alone - and further increases for public defenders and other court-related organizations - on top of the current $300 million budget.

Among things affected if the budget is cut further, according to the coalition, will be:

  • Up to 500 jobs could be lost.
  • Work on low-priority cases such as trespassing, small claims and traffic may cease.
  • Many court cases would be delayed.
  • More expense for counties to house prisoners longer.
  • Up to $200 million of state and local governments would end because cases would not be heard.
  • Courts dealing with drug-related charges, which experts say help addicts, could close.

"Many types of civil cases will go," Magnuson said.

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said among the things that could not be done is dealing with 10,000 harassment cases that are filed each year. "These are very volatile situations."

School truancy cases also would not be pursued, Backstrom said, which could lead the youths to get into more serious trouble.

Backstrom used his office as an example of what counties face. With a hiring freeze in place, he has two attorney openings and will have two other staff openings that cannot be filled. The freeze was instituted because the state is cutting back on payments to counties.

About 12 percent of Minnesota's public defenders, lawyers who represent people who cannot afford to pay, already have been cut in previous budget problems. Up to a quarter of those left could lose their jobs under a 10 percent cut, Stuart said.

"To get an attorney, it is going to have to be a bad, bad problem," Stuart added.

Magnuson said the state constitution makes public safety its top priority, and policymakers need to remember that when they set their budget priorities this year.

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.