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Ninth Judicial District: Court personnel dealing with underfunding


A hiring freeze, reduced work hours, staff reductions -- these are a few of the strategies the Minnesota Judicial Branch has made to respond to the state's funding crisis.

"We came into the last biennium 9 percent underfunded," Chief Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Eric Magnuson said during a meeting with the Ninth Judicial District judges Friday. "We just don't have enough people to the work."

Magnuson said the plan is to find positive ways to deal with the underfunding and still serve citizens and keep judges' and court staff morale up.

He said Minnesota is made up of 10 judicial districts employing about 280 judges.

"I've been trying to get to all the judicial districts," Magnuson said. "It really helps me see how things are on the ground instead of secondhand."

He said criminal cases move through the courts efficiently, as they must, according to the Constitution, but civil cases lag. He said services that might suffer if the underfunding continues include small business claims and conciliation court.

"We're extremely concerned about the effect of the budget deficit on the judicial system," said Judge Paul Benshoof of Bemidji.

He said 90 percent of the budget goes to salaries.

"If we lose people, we don't know how we can do business," he said. "A lot of civil cases aren't being scheduled as quickly as people want."

He said some judges in the Ninth Judicial District have to share courts. In addition, 82 court employees have taken volunteer unpaid leave for a savings of $165,000 so far.

Judge Shari Schluchter said she welcomed the opportunity to discuss the local impacts of the budget crisis with other members of the district. She said Beltrami County District Court has eliminated two employee positions and now shares Court Administrator Amy Turnquist with Cass County.

"Two busy counties sharing," Schluchter said. "We're working real hard to do more with less."

For example, she said, last week, when she was on the criminal calendar, she read 371 files, a typical load.

Some efficiency measures Magnuson cited include:

- A centralized court payment system to enter all citations issued by local law enforcement; operate a call center for questions; take payments by mail, telephone and Internet; refer unpaid obligations to a connections agent; and automatically split payments between government agencies.

- E-citations to allow traffic citations to be entered into squad car computers, transferred electronically to police and sheriffs' departments and into courts' case management systems.

- E-charging in partnership with the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to enable county attorneys to file complaints electronically.

- Enabling those called for jury duty to fill out their questionnaires online.

"The measures we have taken are strong and are already causing strains on the system," Magnuson wrote in his FY10-11 Outlook. "We recognize that there are limitations on our ability to manage our way out of further cuts. There is one thing we cannot economize: our core mission to provide justice through a system that assures equal access for the fair and timely resolution of cases and controversies."