Third branch of government, but funded like Third World nation
We had a great turnout last night for the Dialogues session on Minnesota's judicial system, how well or not well it's financed...Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, Olmsted District Judge Kevin Lund, O C Attorney Mark Ostrem and O C Courts Administrator Chuck Kjos joined us, and as always I learned a ton from panelists and audience.
Karen Duncan, chief public defender for the 3rd Judicial District, couldn't make it because of the weather.
Reporter Jan Gregorson has a story in today's paper. Here are notes on key points I heard:
Judge Lund said Olmsted had six district judges when we were a city of 70,000...we're now a city of more than 100,000 and still have six judges.
He also framed a comment about Rochester's growth as if to suggest that local leaders have been hell-bent on getting us to 100,000 and major league status, which results in costs and consequences.
He said that in the year 2000, there were 461 felonies handled in O C -- now averaging about 892 felony filings per year.
He said the court funding situation -- not enough judges, staffing, associated services such as public defenders -- is "scandalous." It "weakens the right to a speedy trial" and "impacts access to justice."
The judicial branch is an "independent and co-equal branch of government" but the governor and Legislature don't fund it that way. They're "decidedly indifferent."
He noted the city's "precipitous decision to add more police without a commensurate addition" of funding to handle more cases and people brought into the court system. (Police Chief Roger Peterson was in the audience but didn't comment.)
Kjos said based on number-crunching, O C has 83 percent of the judge services it needs...he and Lund both suggested one more district judge would at least be in the ballpark for what's needed.
O C courts have 29.5 FTEs, down from a high several years ago of 43.
Ostrem said a "properly funded judicial system includes a properly funded public defender system."
Distribution of judges through the state's districts is out of balance, he and others said. O C has needed a seventh judge for "quite some time."
Currently, jury trials in O C are scheduled out to January 2011, which he and others said is unfair to all involved and leads to more dismissals and pleas. In most area counties, jury trials are scheduled out as far as mid-summer.
Ostrem said there are a lot more crimes involving guns, weapons and more gang-type activity in Rochester, "all factors that add to complexity" and burden the court system. Those cases "bump out the more perfunctory" cases and gum up the entire system.
He noted that three judges in the 3rd Judicial District (which includes Olmsted) will retire this year, adding to delays and adding uncertainty.
O C is maybe a thousand cases behind the pace, because of backlogs and underfunding.
Magnuson, who has been chief justice for two years, says, "I inherited a terrible funding mess... you know what's happening with money...all of state government is under strsss."
"There's only so much you can do with less," year after year, he said.
State spending on the judiciary amounts to 2 percent of state spending, he said. When asked by someone in the audience, he said 2.2 percent would be adequate funding...$40 million more...(about the cost of the Mayo Civic Center expansion project...my words, not his.)
Lund referred to the MN Sex Offender Program, which I believe he said costs $66 million a year, as an area that needs another look. (He's made this case in court, of course.)
He also said the move to state funding of courts, rather than county funding, "was the worst thing that ever happened" to the district court process. "If we needed 10 more people, we could go the county board" and make our case.
Magnuson disagreed, saying centralized funding assures equitable justice around the state.
The county's new concilliation court and the new city court are both helping to skim lesser court business, improving the process, Kjos and others said.