Here’s the thing about budget shortfalls and the budget cuts that result from them: Eventually, they become more than numbers.
Often, they turn into lost jobs. And sometimes, permanently closed courthouses, as well as delayed court calendars, no more marriage ceremonies during business hours and fewer funds for drug courts.
“Here’s what happens when we have funding shortages: The cases don’t go away, they just pile up,” says John Kostouros, communications director for the Minnesota Judicial Branch. “We don’t have the ability to control our workload. All we can do is manage it.”
Last month, “manage it” meant:
* Cuts in per-diem payments to jurors in Minnesota courts, from $20 a day to $10.
* Abolishing or holding open 9 percent of staff positions in the state’s courts.
* Permanently closing the Washington County Courthouse in Cottage Grove.
* Terminating civil arbitration services and ending funding for family court supervised visitation services in the Fourth Judicial District (Hennepin County).
* Closing court public counters a half-day each week in three judicial districts.
* Reducing funding for drug courts.
“Minnesota’s courts are some of the most innovative and efficient courts in the nation,” Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson says. “But there’s a limit to our ability to keep up with the caseload, given the current level of funding, and we’ve reached it.”
Kostouros points out that the Legislature did not cut funding to the state court system in the last biennium; rather, it was increased. However, the amount appropriated was $22 million short of what was needed to operate the state’s courts, and in the 2008 session, $3 million of that money was taken away, meaning a $19 million budget shortfall for the current fiscal year that had to be corrected.
“We don’t run a lot of programs, so it tends to show up as slowdowns in our calendars, and we’re already seeing delays in many places,” he says. “…What happens is that it takes longer to get everything through the system.”
And meanwhile, just like everywhere else in Minnesota, the cost of doing business in the state’s courts continues to rise. One example that Kostouros cites is interpreter services: Minnesota courts had more than 35,000 interpreted events last year, and the courts are constitutionally required to pay for those interpreters. That number continues to rise as the number of non-English speakers in Minnesota increases.
In the Third Judicial District, which covers 11 counties in southeastern Minnesota, court administrators are no longer performing marriage ceremonies during business hours. Those services are available only after hours.
Washington County courts’ collection service has been abolished, which means that residents who can’t pay their fines in full are no longer able to work out a payment plan with the court; instead, they must pay the entire fine, or the matter will be passed on to a collection agency.
Civil arbitration services offered in Hennepin County courts have come to an end. The county also has closed all public counters Wednesday afternoons.
In a June speech to the Minnesota State Bar Association, Magnuson pulled no punches in assessing the court system’s financial health.
“Let me be blunt: Our situation is serious,” he said. “If this were a hospital room, this is the point where we would close the door, look each other in the eye, and soberly walk through our options.”
Magnuson talked about the $19 million shortfall, which he said would be rectified as fairly as possible across the entire system, “but the blunt truth is that the lack of resources will affect most areas of what the courts do,” he said, noting the staff vacancy rate, delays in civil cases, reduced hours at public service windows and cuts in juror per-diem payments.
“And the cuts to public defense budgets will exacerbate our problems, slowing criminal-case processing and jeopardizing progress in the very areas we have been working on in recent years as strategic initiatives: child protection cases and drug courts,” Magnuson said. “…We are asking more and more from fewer and fewer people, and feeling increased pressure to limit our efforts to do what many consider to be just the bare essentials of justice without innovation or forward thinking.”
A recent study by the Minnesota legislative auditor’s office found that the state’s Judicial Branch operates in a “highly efficient and effective” manner: The study found that Minnesota trial courts meet or exceed the case-processing times of other states, and carry caseloads that are 49 percent higher than comparable states.
Kostouros says the Judicial Branch is continuing to seek ways to improve efficiency. A special Judicial Council committee is studying changes in business and case-processing practices that would further streamline court business, and a new case management system, the Minnesota Court Information System (MNCIS), went live this spring. The system added technical innovations that will greatly improve efficiency, Kostouros said. He added, however, that “any future savings from these innovations will not be sufficient to address the current budget issues.”
In his speech to the state Bar Association, Magnuson alluded to the dismal budget deficit projections for the 2010-11 biennium.
“The cuts we have already sustained are certainly daunting, but the financial picture over the next biennium … is even grimmer,” he said. “… We cannot allow the next legislative session to be a repeat of the last one. Further cuts cannot be sustained, and funding of our basic employee costs and targeted investments will be absolutely essential.
“Our goal in the next legislative session must be to secure the resources needed to perform our constitutionally mandated function.”