The 2017 legislative session is underway and the MSBA’s experienced lobbying team is at the Capitol, working hard to advance strategic initiatives to benefit the public and our justice system. We have a number of opportunities this session. The Republicans now control both the House and the Senate. This gives us the chance to build relationships with new legislators, grow relationships with incumbent legislators, and continue to demonstrate, session after session, that our profession’s vast knowledge and technical expertise add value to the policy-making process.
Top priority: Justice system funding
Our top legislative priority this session is to secure adequate funding for the justice system—courts, public defenders, and civil legal services. These three partners are often called “the three legs of the stool.” Adequate funding for all three is the cornerstone of justice in Minnesota.
- Our courts handle the vast majority of the state’s legal business. They are constitutionally charged with upholding the rule of law and providing citizens with equal access to justice. Inadequate funding threatens these core functions. Justice delayed or denied undermines trust and confidence in our judiciary. Our system of separation of powers and American democracy depend on adequately funding the operations of our third branch of government.
- Civil legal services (CLS) provides access to the justice system for the most vulnerable in all 87 counties, including victims of domestic violence, the elderly, and the disabled. CLS is critical to the efficiency of the justice system. It provides legal representation to those who cannot afford it and keeps cases out of the system in the first place by redirecting and resolving them. CLS helped 47,000 people in 2015, but meets the needs of only two of every five eligible clients. Inadequate funding widens the “justice gap,” creating disparities in justice and pushing unrepresented parties into the courts.
- Public defenders are the largest users of our court system, providing constitutionally mandated legal services in over 145,000 cases annually in every courthouse and county in the state. Public defenders make the 6th Amendment guarantee of the right to counsel a reality. But because public defenders cannot refuse cases and cannot control caseloads, inadequate funding creates the risk that the delivery of legal services could fall below constitutional, ethical, and professional standards and also undermine the efficiency of the court system. Due to staffing shortages, the public defender is not present for out-of-custody and in-custody first appearances in many counties.
For those of you who are not judges, legal aid attorneys, or public defenders, or don’t serve clients in the state court system, justice system funding still matters to you. This is because an underfunded justice system negatively impacts our state’s business climate and economy. Former Minnesota Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, Steve Puiszis, Lisa Agrimonti, and Nicole Frank are the authors of “The Economics of Justice,” a DRI whitepaper. They demonstrate that an underfunded justice system causes delays in civil case dispositions, increases litigation costs and uncertainty, and undermines breach of contract deterrence and enforcement, impacting litigation strategies and the investment climate. This results in lost opportunities for further economic development, as businesses turn away from states with underfunded justice systems.
Additional legislative priorities
The MSBA has three additional priorities that reflect the hard work of our sections to improve existing legislation, make sure our laws work as intended, and don’t create problems down the road for the public. They are:
- amendments to the Real Property Electronic Recording Act to require that electronically recorded documents contain the equivalent of original signatures and also be in recordable format;
- amendments to the Minnesota Corporate Farm Law to exempt a trustee of a revocable trust of which the grantor and/or the grantor’s spouse is the sole lifetime beneficiary from having to report under the statute; and
- amendments to the Nonprofit Corporation Act (Chapter 317A) to align the Act more closely with the Business Corporation Act (Chapter 302A), clarify the role of incorporators, clarify when nonprofit directors and members can use electronic voting, permit the merger of a single-member limited liability company into its parent nonprofit corporation, and permit conversion of certain foreign and domestic organizations into and out of Minnesota nonprofit corporations.
The MSBA is grateful for the hard work of the Real Property Law Section, the Business Law Section, and the Probate and Trust Law Section in developing these policy proposals. These proposals reflect our lawyers’ technical expertise that makes the MSBA so valuable at the Capitol.
Staying engaged this session
Please take the opportunity to educate your clients about the importance of a well-funded judiciary. You can support our legislative priorities by watching for MSBA social media messages at key points in the legislative session and sharing those messages with your legislators, business clients, and colleagues. Stay informed about developments at the Capitol by accessing The Capital Connection, our weekly newsletter detailing the status of our legislative priorities and other key legislation.
Our legislative team is led by Bryan Lake, our seasoned lobbyist, Legislative Committee Chair Gary Hansen, and MSBA Government Relations and Membership Engagement Director Sherri Knuth. I am grateful for all the hard work they are doing on behalf of the public this session. They make the MSBA a voice worth listening to at the Capitol.
ROBIN M. WOLPERT is a legal strategist, litigator, and appellate lawyer at Sapientia Law Group, where she focuses her practice on complex business litigation, data privacy, constitutional law, and political law compliance. Robin represents clients in litigation involving private parties or the government, parallel civil and criminal proceedings, civil and criminal appeals, and investigations.