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Chief Judge Edward Toussaint of the Minnesota Appeals Court explains in a Thursday Senate hearing that state law requires the 19 judges to travel the state, hearing cases near where they were brought. Pioneer Photo/Don Davis

Court cuts to hit small counties hardest

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ST. PAUL -- Further state budget cuts will mean longer waits for cases to go through Minnesota's court system, judicial leaders say, and small counties will be hardest hit.

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For years, courts in the least populated counties have received more state funding per capita than larger counties. But on Thursday State Court Administrator Sue Dosal told the Senate Judiciary Budget Division that is ending.

She said the courts no longer can afford to give extra money to small counties.

That could mean some counties' court offices would be open only when a judge is there. In many parts of the state, there often is no judge in a county.

The change, made because the number of court employees is shrinking, will be phased in over three years, Dosal said.

"Fewer people means less services," she said. "Delays and backlogs already are building across the state."

Gov. Tim Pawlenty recommends that the courts be cut $13.7 million as he tries to plug a $1.2 billion state budget deficit.

Legislative leaders expect to begin looking at what to cut in many budget areas as early as next week, but committee Chairman Leo Foley, DFL-Coon Rapids, said he did not want to move backward to a time when case backlogs were bigger than in recent years.

Dosal said a cut the size Pawlenty wants would result in elimination of 77 positions, on top of 250 that have been cut recently. She said that would leave the court staff 13 percent smaller than needed.

All of that means Minnesotans with cases in courts throughout Minnesota will experience much longer waits. For instance, Judge David Knutson of Dakota County said that in some areas judges now are scheduling simple divorces for September.

Court Administrator Tim Ostby, who serves two west-central Minnesota districts, said his area will be hit the hardest. Those two areas already have cut 60 percent of their management jobs, he said, and more court counters will close more often.

The 8th Judicial District -- which includes Willmar, Granite Falls and Morris -- will have cut 20 percent of its staff even before the Legislature and Pawlenty make their newest cuts, Ostby said.

"Further cuts will result in layoffs," Ostby said.

Rural judges already use television connections to remotely hold some hearings, so judges do not have to travel.

Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley, asked if the Appeals Court needs to continue traveling around the state to hear cases.

Chief Judge Edward Toussaint said state law requires an appeals case to be heard in the area where it was in district court so people involved can attend.

Toussaint said that before the Legislature increased the number of Appeals Court judges from 16 to 19 in 2007, the court had 741 cases on its waiting list. That number dwindled to 198 this month, but it is on its way back to the 2007 level, he warned.

About seven Appeals Court clerk positions have been cut. Each handled 35 cases a year, cases that will be delayed if they cannot be replaced, the chief judge said.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.

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Pioneer staff reports
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