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

Minnesota’s Judiciary: Leadership in Service to Minnesotans

Good morning, and thank you for inviting me to speak with you today.  During my time with you, I want to talk about customer service.

Specifically, I want to talk about how we, in the Judicial Branch, are working to improve and enhance how we serve the public, and what you can do as our partners in the justice system to help our efforts.

To paraphrase a business leader, customer service is not a department in the Minnesota judiciary—customer service is everyone’s job.  All of us working in the justice system have a tremendous opportunity to treat our customers fairly and impartially and to build a system that is accessible, safe, responsive, transparent, and understandable to not only those who interact with it but to the taxpayers who support its operation.

So today let me highlight what we are doing to improve our service to the people of Minnesota, how we are measuring our work and holding ourselves accountable, and what the future holds.

What We Do Best

Let me begin with what we are doing best.

One of our solemn obligations is to ensure Minnesota’s courts remain open and accessible to all.  Upholding this commitment is a central mission of our Judicial Branch, and it guides every step we take from our strategic planning to how we craft our budget, to how we engage with the public through our website and outreach activities.

Earlier this spring, we were honored and humbled when we learned that a nation-wide study named Minnesota’s state courts the leader in providing access to justice.  Measuring state-to-state performance in providing access to those with limited English proficiency, disabilities, the self-represented, and those in poverty who need an attorney—the National Center for Access to Justice gave Minnesota courts the highest overall score in the country on its Justice Index.

We believe our high ranking is no accident.  Our judges and court staff work hard to make the system as accessible and efficient as possible.  The credit for this great news also goes to lawyers in Minnesota, including many of you in this room—lawyers who give of themselves and their time to provide pro bono services to those who find themselves involved in the court system.

Enabling Access to Justice. We have made assistance to self-represented litigants a Branch priority since 2006, and today there is a self-help workstation in every county courthouse.  Customers have access to a computer, a printer, and a phone with a direct dial to a self-help call center.  In 2013, walk-in Self-Help centers in our highest volume county—Hennepin—served more than 37,000 people.

To provide help in all counties, we also manage a centralized “virtual” Self-Help Center (  Information, forms, tools to assist with completing forms, videos and tutorials, links to legal advice, and more are available on our website.

Staffed by attorneys who provide general information and guidance, the Self-Help Center website is heavily used.  In 2013, there were more than 1 million visits to the home page, and Self-Help Center attorneys responded to more than 20,000 requests for assistance.

We also credit the important work of the Minnesota State Law Library and its expanding array of resources, programs, and clinics designed to provide needed information for those of us in the justice system, as well as the public.

In April 2013, the Minnesota State Law Library, in partnership with the Labor and Employment Law Section of the Minnesota State Bar Association, started a free clinic for people contemplating an appeal to the Minnesota Court of Appeals from a denial of unemployment benefits.

In addition, earlier this year, the Law Library established an online appellate resource to help our customers navigate the process of filing an appeal.

These new educational resources help us reach our goal of making the justice system more accessible, more transparent, and more responsive to the needs of our customers.

So we take tremendous pride in our ranking as the nation’s leader in providing access to justice, but we will not rest when it comes to access to justice.  We are proud of our efforts but recognize that we all have more work to do in providing access and equal treatment for all.

One such area identified by the Justice Index report is providing attorneys to those living at or below 125 percent of the poverty level.  Minnesota has fewer than 150 civil legal aid attorneys available to assist over 820,000 eligible clients statewide.

The state courts and civil legal aid have been working together to try to maximize available resources, but we must do more.  To all of you who have engaged in pro bono work over the past year, I say thank you.  And to those of you still thinking about it, please join us.  You can help the best system be even better.

Measuring Performance. It is difficult to really talk about how we are doing with our customer service without some way to measure performance.  In the Judicial Branch, we believe in measuring our performance.  To us it is an issue of trust and accountability.  Our willingness to innovate, reform, and measure demonstrates our accountability to the citizens we serve and those who fund us.  It is this accountability that is vital to maintaining and growing public trust, and ensuring the highest level of service to our customers.

How are we accountable?  Since 2008, the Branch has tracked its performance on a number of indicators, including customer satisfaction, case disposition timeliness, and employee perceptions.
We publish these full results annually on our website.

Our most recent report shows that statewide clearance rates continue to improve, our backlog index has declined in three out of four case groups, and all ten judicial districts are disposing of more civil cases than were filed.

In addition to reviewing these performance measures, we also ask our customers how we are doing.  We conducted our most recent Access and Fairness Survey of court customers last year.  We earned high marks from Minnesotans for courthouse access and treating people with respect in last year’s survey.

Because one of our paramount goals is to provide understandable dispute resolution, we are pleased that 84 percent of those we surveyed said they knew “what to do next” when they left court.

Finally, in terms of performance measurement, we periodically conduct a survey of judges and staff and ask them about the quality of their workplace.  We did very well in this measure as well.  And as chief justice, I was gratified to learn that nine out of ten court employees—including justices, judges, and staff—said that they were proud to work at their court.

Measuring our performance has become a regular part of court business practice in our state.  Districts review the results at bench meetings.  The Judicial Council, our Branch’s policy-making body, evaluates progress on these performance measures twice a year.  Across the Branch, we use the data throughout the year to find new ways to increase efficiency and achieve better results.

This focus on performance measurement allows us to hold ourselves accountable for the quality of service we provide to the public and provides us with the data we need as we build our strategic plan and focus our future efforts.

Service Initiatives

So, what’s next for Minnesota’s Judicial Branch, and how are we working to improve our service to the people of Minnesota?  The answer is—a lot.

Steve Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, said “if we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to keep getting what we’re getting.”  In the Judicial Branch, that status quo is not good enough. We do not want to keep getting what we’re getting. We want to get better in terms of our customer service, and so we have many initiatives under way that we hope will help us get better in serving our customers.  I will highlight just a few.

Technology. Much of what is coming next is related to technology.  After all, its 2014 and “this isn’t your grandpa’s
judiciary.”  Technology is one of the reasons why, and so we should look first at what is the largest transformation in the Branch’s 150-plus-year history, eCourtMN.

eCourtMN is our initiative to move from paper to electronic case records; it is well underway, and our goal is for full statewide transition by the end of 2015.

The Judicial Council approved eCourtMN in 2011, and our development team has spent countless hours since then tackling this tremendously complex project.

I’m pleased to report that we have completed the first two phases of our four-phase implementation strategy.  We have conducted an 11-county eCourtMN pilot project, which I’m sure many of you have seen firsthand.  Phase 2—just recently completed—addressed court administration processes and training.

Phase 3, which just began last month, may prove to be the trickiest—getting our judges across 87 counties and the appellate courts ready to move into the digital age.

I recognize that none of this is easy.  The legislature and taxpayers have made significant investments to fund this transition.  Our dedicated staff at the Judicial Branch has invested their considerable talents on this historic project.  You, our partners, and other stakeholders are investing your time and energy to adapt to a new system and helping shape the final product as we go through this transition period.

Indeed, right now we may be at the toughest point of the eCourtMN transition.  We are all adjusting, all learning.  Different counties are in different stages of the process.  Your existing workflows are being disrupted.  We’re all learning new systems; so it is not wrong to acknowledge that this transition period is difficult.

But I’m also confident that the end result of the eCourtMN project will be worth the investments we have made and will be worth the growing pains that we are all feeling.

Our ultimate goal with eCourtMN is to automate the routine and leave more time for the courts to focus on the administration of justice.  This transition will make our Branch more responsive and more accessible to our customers, so stick with us; it will be worth it in the end. 

Expedited Litigation Track. Another example of “what’s next” is a report about our Expedited Litigation Track for civil cases.  It comes as no surprise to lawyers that there is public frustration with the time it takes to conclude many civil cases.

In an effort to get at the problem, we created an expedited process for certain types of civil cases.  We are piloting this Expedited Litigation Track in Dakota and St. Louis counties.  The cases in the pilot receive early judicial attention, and the goal is to get these cases into trial within six months of case filing.

The pilots have been up and running for almost a year now and the preliminary numbers look promising in terms of getting cases into trial or otherwise resolved more quickly.  We will examine more data this fall on our pilots that we will use to evaluate other civil reforms across the state.  So expect to hear more on this topic.

Courthouse Security. Enhancing courthouse security is also on the “what’s next” list for us.  In addition to providing timely resolution of their disputes, the public trusts us to do so in a safe environment.  As the Cook County Courthouse shooting in 2011 and the “white powder scares” that we have had recently at the trial court and at the Minnesota Judicial Center demonstrate, Minnesota is not immune to courthouse violence.

In my personal interactions with judges and staff who have experienced security threats, I am struck by the lasting impact of these incidents.  It is palpable.  And I believe we have a responsibility to do more.

The Judicial Branch does not own the buildings where our business is conducted.
The buildings that house our trial courts are owned by the counties.  And so I recently met with the Association of Minnesota Counties to discuss working together to improve court security.

The Association of Minnesota Counties and the state courts have agreed to form a workgroup to explore ways we can work together to improve security and training, and explore funding sources for our efforts.  We will keep you posted on our progress.

Cameras in Courts. And the final area in terms of what’s next for us that I want to talk about is cameras in the courtroom.  This is an issue important to all of us who care about fostering public trust in the judiciary.

We allow the media to bring in cameras and to make audio and video recordings at the Minnesota Supreme Court.  But in terms of the trial courts, we had a rule in Minnesota that said if the judge and both lawyers agreed, then cameras could come in and record what happened in the trial courts.  Well, as you might imagine, this almost never happened.

In 2011, the supreme court authorized a pilot program in certain civil cases to see what would happen if we simply left the matter up to the judge.  In other words, if the media wanted to come in with a camera, the judge alone could authorize that.

We ran the pilot statewide for two years, and just as most other states have found, we determined “no problems, complaints, delays, or known prejudice to the parties” occurred during the pilot.  As a result, the court made the rule permanent.  So now in Minnesota, audio and video coverage of most civil cases is permitted with the consent of the judge.

There are still prohibitions for audio and video coverage of family cases, and for coverage of jurors and witnesses who object to it, but otherwise we are shining more light on how we do our work, and I think that is a good thing.

Now, the “what’s next” part of this story is expanding audio and video coverage in criminal cases.  The court has directed the Advisory Committee on the Rules of Criminal Procedure to evaluate the possibility of audio and video coverage of certain criminal cases where witness and juror concerns are minimized, such as post-plea or post-verdict proceedings.

I am hopeful that we will soon see a careful and balanced proposed pilot project from the criminal rules committee so that the public will have a bigger and brighter window into what goes on inside our criminal courtrooms.

What’s Next for Lawyers

So now that I’ve shared with you our successes and our ongoing efforts to
improve our service to the public at the Judicial Branch, I want to talk to you about what’s next for you, our partners.  And if you permit me, I would like to give you a few homework assignments.

First, we have some important work to do to get ready for eCourtMN, and we need your help.

Advisory Committee Service. Earlier this month, the supreme court began asking lawyers, judges, court administrators, and others to consider seeking a spot on one of our court rules advisory committees.  These advisory committees provide recommendations to the court on potential changes to the rules that govern court proceedings and records in the state.

The committees will be meeting later this year to review the court rules and identify any needed amendments to accommodate electronic filing and service in the district courts.  It is extremely important that our court rules are modified to reflect this historic change in court operations.

So today, my first piece of homework for you is to consider volunteering your time and talents to serve on the court rules advisory committees.  You can find out more about the committees on the Judicial Branch website, along with instructions on how to submit a letter of interest.  The openings close on July 1, so please respond quickly.  We are really hoping for significant representation from the Bar on these committees.

Judicial Branch Funding. The other homework I have for you relates to the fact that 2014 is an election year.  For much of the first decade of this new century, court systems across the country—including ours—faced major budget challenges as legislatures grappled with historic budget shortfalls.

We all know what happens when funding for the justice system gets cut.  Case backlogs grow, court fees and fines increase, the availability of public defenders and legal aid lawyers plummets, and access to our courts suffers.  We begin to fail our customers, and confidence in our institution weakens.

So for the past decade we have partnered together.  We’ve stood side-by-side and made the case at the legislature for keeping our justice system strong, open, and accessible to all.  You helped us remind Minnesotans and those who fund us that justice is not an option, it is an obligation.

Because you added your voice to the debate, we had success.  I am proud to say that because of our joint efforts, the legislature has fully funded the Branch’s budget requests the last two biennia.  On behalf of the Minnesota Judicial Branch and all the citizens we serve, thank you for your considerable efforts.  Without a doubt, they made a difference.

So What’s Next? Well, 2014 is an election year and next year will be a budget year for us.  So what’s next for you is the duty to help us educate candidates for governor and the legislature about the need for adequate funding for the justice system.  I call this the “doorbell” strategy.

Perhaps the best time to get legislators’ and the governor’s attention is when they come to you asking for your vote and for your support.  When these candidates come ringing your doorbell this summer and fall, asking for your vote, please ask them what they are going to do for the justice system.

Urge them to support fully- funding the budget request that will come from the courts and our justice system partners—the public defenders and the civil legal services providers.  And if the candidates are looking for support in a congressional race, urge them to support adequate funding for the federal system.  We are counting on you.  When the doorbell rings, answer the call.

Shared Responsibility

It is our shared responsibility to maintain and enhance our state’s justice system and reaffirm the faith Minnesotans have placed in our courts.  We are working hard to make our court system—the nation’s leader in providing access to justice—even better at meeting the needs of our state, and I want to thank you for joining us in working toward this important goal.

You do not hear the phrase, “Thank you,” enough.  But you do need and deserve to hear it today.  Albert Einstein said that “only a life lived in the service to others is worth living.”  As attorneys, you live these lives of service every day.

And you make a difference every day, when you, as lawyers, represent clients in our justice system.  Thank you for your work.  Thank you for all you have done and all that I know you will do for the cause of justice in this state.

Minnesota’s Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea was appointed chief justice in July 2010 after serving as an associate justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court from January 2006.  Prior to her appointment to the bench of Minnesota’s 4th Judicial District, she was a prosecutor in the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office (2004-2005), associate general counsel at the University of Minnesota (1993-2004) and in private litigation practice at Arent Fox in Washington, D.C. (1986-1993).

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