Court officials worry about budget

ST. PAUL - Finding justice will be tougher for Minnesotans if proposed budget cuts materialize, court officials from across the state tell legislators.

ST. PAUL - Finding justice will be tougher for Minnesotans if proposed budget cuts materialize, court officials from across the state tell legislators.

"We are rapidly approaching a crisis in our court administration offices that will have a detrimental effect on the people who serve and those who rely upon our work," Chief Judge Gary Schurrer of the 10th Judicial District wrote to lawmakers.

Minnesota court officials for years have said they need more money to keep up with a growing caseload -- 2 million cases are filed each year. But comments like Schurrer's take it a step beyond those earlier comments.

If lawmakers enact a 4 percent budget cut proposed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, some court offices could close, hours may be trimmed in other offices, all courts would experience delays and expenses would rise for the other state agencies and counties, Chief Justice Russell Anderson said in an interview.

"Justice delayed is justice denied," Anderson added.


He and other court leaders say 15 percent of court jobs will be cut if lawmakers approve Pawlenty's plan.

Pawlenty proposed a 4 percent budget cut in many state agencies as part of the solution for a $935 million budget deficit. He said that balancing the budget will require compromise and sacrifice.

Even with his proposed cuts, Pawlenty said state spending is expected to increase by 9.2 percent.

"The rate of growth over a two-year budget cycle is still very substantial and in many ways still too high," Pawlenty said.

Legislative committees are considering Pawlenty's proposal, but it could be weeks before decisions are made.

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Tarryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud, said she has heard concerns from Anderson and a judge from her area.

"They're frankly just trying to figure out how they're supposed to make more (cuts) when they already have a hole in their budget," Clark said.

Clark and House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said it is too soon to know what type of funding cuts the court system could see this year.


Anderson and state Court Administrator Sue Dosal said this is an especially bad time for cuts, given the state of the economy.

Criminal cases usually rise during economic downturns. And, Clark said, cuts to the judicial branch could delay the administration of justice at a time when foreclosure and divorce rates are up.

Decisions have not been made, but it is likely that court offices will close in a dozen counties without resident judges. Some suburban Twin Cities court offices also probably will close.

Among other cuts Minnesotans can expect are:

l Reduced hours of service in court offices.

l Closing lesser-used rural and suburban court offices.

l Closing drug courts, despite experience that shows they keep many people out of prison and save money.

l Trimmed services to Minnesotans who represent themselves in court.


l Reduced civil legal services.

l Delayed cases.

In the 5th Judicial District, which covers southwestern Minnesota, 10 people will be laid off if the Pawlenty cuts pass. That would come on top of 11 already eliminated.

"The operating portion of our budget is also already precariously lean," Chief Judge George Harrelson said.

"Since we are already understaffed, we cannot reduce staff any further without reducing services at the same time," Harrelson added.

Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Daily Globe.

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