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Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

“Wherever Two or More Are Gathered”

If you have been paying attention, you have noticed that Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea is “a person on a mission.” Since her appointment as chief justice last summer, she has made adequate funding of the Minnesota Justice System a constant and central focus of her considerable energy and activity. She has said that she is dedicated to carrying the message and cause for adequate funding of the justice system “any place where two or more persons are gathered.”  Although she says this with her usual smile, the statement is certainly not “tongue in cheek.”  She is serious and her activity level shows it!  As our chief justice, she has not only taken this important message to the halls of the Minnesota Legislature, but also to citizens and groups across the state.

Chief Justice Gildea is assisted in her mission by a broad-based and fully engaged group known as “The Coalition to Preserve Minnesota’s Justice System”.  The Coalition comprises not only members the Minnesota judicial branch (appellate and district judges), but also members of other groups who either receive funding through the justice system budget or are impacted negatively when the justice system is not adequately funded.  The Coalition includes public defenders, civil legal service providers to low-income clients, law enforcement (police and sheriff’s associations), county and city prosecutors, state and local corrections officers, bar associations (state, district, and specialty), and other interested and affiliated groups.

What’s the Problem?

You all know by now that previous budget cuts have left the justice system in the middle of a funding crisis. This seriously impacts its ability to provide the necessary and, in some cases, constitutionally mandated services of the third branch of state government.  Here are a few examples. For the courts, 250 positions have been cut since 2008. Judicial vacancies remain open for at least four months, causing the already busy sitting judges to pick up the extra work—Can there be any question that this leaves less time for them to address the important matters that come before them?  Public service counters in over half of the judicial districts must close a half day each week, frustrating and disappointing citizens who may have taken time off work to journey to the courthouse to conduct their necessary and important business.

The talented and dedicated attorneys who serve as public defenders have experienced the same cuts in staff and their caseloads far exceed acceptable standards.  Moreover, they have difficulty making required appearances, often at distant locations, thus contributing—through no fault of their own—to delays in justice system functioning.

Their equally talented and dedicated counterparts among the civil legal service providers have experienced the same fate.  Cuts in their funding and staffing negatively impact their ability to provide necessary legal representation to those who often have no other place to turn in time of crisis.  Some of these—unfortunately but of necessity—are being turned away.  They are left with a bitter choice: either to forgo meaningful access to justice or to represent themselves, pro se, in a sometimes foreign and complex system. The latter alternative may, and often does, place additional pressure on the efficient functioning of the justice system.

The direct consequences of inadequate justice system funding go beyond the challenges faced at the courthouses and from lack of legal counsel. They manifest themselves in reduced public safety, overcrowding of jails and prisons, lack of a support system for families and children, and the loss of protection of the law, usually in a time of crisis.

All of the above components of the justice system have streamlined their systems and operations significantly, introducing creative and cost-saving efficiencies where possible to continue delivering optimal service in spite of inadequate funding.  Unfortunately those measures are not enough!  Neither are the hundreds of thousands of hours of pro bono legal services provided by the generous attorneys of Minnesota. Adequate funding is essential.  Failure to provide it will lead to unacceptable consequences for law enforcement, the rule of law, and full access to constitutionally guaranteed legal rights and protections for Minnesotans.

Now Serving Number 5,000,000

Five million: that’s the number of Minnesotans who have a right to expect that their justice system is adequately funded and available to them as the constitution mandates.  As members of the profession we understand that the justice system doesn’t exist for the benefit of lawyers and judges.  As one of the three constitutionally required core branches of state government, the justice system exists for all Minnesota citizens.  As recently retired Chief Justice Eric Magnuson correctly observed during his tenure on the court, “The Minnesota Justice System has the largest front door in the state of Minnesota.”

Please Hold the Door

Minnesota lawyers, as officers of the court and as gatekeepers of the promise of access to the justice system for all, are charged with a special responsibility to join the mission to assure proper funding of the justice system in our state.  The MSBA has materials posted at www.1000supporters.org and will keep the website updated with current information and talking points.  Please sign up for “1000 Supporters” and follow the developments.  The Coalition is planning to soon bring the message to every county and judicial district across the state through participation in outreach to civic groups.  We need you to show up and participate.

As respected members and leaders in your communities you can help Chief Justice Gildea, the Coalition, and MSBA to carry the important message of the need for proper funding of the Minnesota Justice System.  Talk to your clients, your neighbors, community groups, legislators, and media outlets—where ever two or more are gathered—and explain to them that the courts and the justice system, as Chief Justice Gildea has observed, “is where the people come when the things that are most important to them—their family, their freedom, their property—the things they treasure most, are threatened.”

Together we can hold the doors of justice open.

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Terry Votel

Terry Votel was the 2010-11 president of the Minnesota State Bar Association. The division attorney for the Midwest Division of the Claims Litigation Department of Farmers Insurance Group, he practices in the area of insurance defense. He received his J.D. degree from William Mitchell College of Law.

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