Counties are short of judges. Public defenders are overbooked. And with Minnesota now facing a $6.2 billion deficit, the prospect of any more state cuts is chilling to court officers.
Over the two long, painful years it took for her case to get to trial, the 16-year-old victim of a rape in a Rochester hotel room had steeled herself to testify against her assailant.
But her crucial testimony kept getting delayed. By the time the day finally came, she backed out, tired of reliving the harrowing night for so long.
"I was sick of having to wait,'' she said, "and thinking it would be over.''
Olmsted County prosecutors had to dismiss the charges. County Attorney Mark Ostrem was livid. Delays at the beleaguered courthouse had let another criminal off the hook. "We've got an untreated sex offender out there,'' Ostrem said. "This person is out there walking around completely scot free.''
The wheels of justice are grinding slower and slower in Olmsted County -- and across Minnesota.
Counties are short of judges. Public defenders are overbooked. About 250 court positions around the state are vacant. Paperwork is stacking up. It's taking longer to file orders for protection, get divorced, collect debts, even contest traffic tickets.
And with Minnesota now facing a $6.2 billion deficit, the prospect of any more state cuts is chilling to court officers.
"I cannot overestimate the importance of this issue," said Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea. "The success of our democracy depends on a vibrant, fully functioning justice system ... We can't put the people in prison that we're afraid of if we don't have an adequately funded justice system."
Her fears are not lost on at least one key lawmaker, who says legislators need to prioritize the core service of courts over other spending projects that aren't necessities.
"I honestly believe that it's at a tipping point," said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, chairman of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. "I've been warning the Legislature about this for roughly five to six years ... We are fast moving toward a potential constitutional crisis if we do not adequately fund our courts."
Court officials say what's unfolding is far more than a story of hassles and delays. They see higher and higher stakes.
Just last week, the state appeals court threw out a robbery conviction because the defendant didn't get a speedy trial, as he had requested. The case took nearly 22 months to reach trial, and part of that delay was blamed on the court's busy calendar. The appeals court said some of the delays were likely the "undesirable consequence of the budgetary constraints on our judicial system."
In early 2009, the appeals court threw out a woman's conviction for assaulting a police officer in Ramsey County, also for lack of a speedy trial. Her trial had been rescheduled and continued at least 30 times.
In Olmsted County, in the southeast corner of the state, the felony calendar backlog is now nearly twice as long as it was a decade ago, the court administrator estimates. Felony defendants bailing out of jail this month will be scheduled for trial 14 months from now. In the rape case, it took the court 11 months to schedule a trial, then attorney delays and a court rescheduling put it off for another year. The county is in need of two more judges and more public defenders.
Ostrem, the county attorney, said he also sees cases of defendants committing more crimes during the long wait for trial. "It's having a dramatic impact on public safety, Ostrem said.
Unlike state agencies, which can cut back on services, the courts can't legally turn cases away.
In all, the Legislature and governor took away $19 million in court appropriations since 2008 -- 4.4 percent less than originally appropriated.
Courts are almost entirely funded by the state. Almost all the money courts take in -- fees, fines, copying charges and other revenue -- is handed over to state and local governments. The Legislature appropriates money to the courts.
With 85 percent of court budgets going to personnel costs, rising rates for health care and other benefits have strained the system. The number of cases has not played a major role, administrators say, but the complexity of those cases -- such as more use of DNA evidence, interpreters and psychological evaluations -- means the work can take more time and is more expensive.
Finding ways to cut costs
Court administrators have tried to make things more efficient in lean budget times. They have streamlined paperwork and made better use of computers and video conferencing. Traffic violators can now pay tickets online; processing is handled at a central location rather than 87 counties. Many processors work from home. Administrators are making it easier for attorneys to file lawsuits on a computer and for police to submit citations online, saving staff time.
About 100,000 court appearances have been eliminated each year. Some crimes that once required a court appearance -- such as driving after revocation and driving with an open bottle -- are now treated like traffic tickets, with payable fines.
Judges and court employees are on a two-year pay freeze. Workers have taken voluntary unpaid leaves and furloughs. Seventeen have been laid off.
Delays cause problems
Prosecutors complain that the longer a case drags on, the higher the possibility that witnesses move or disappear. The Olmsted County attorney's office cited at least eight major cases since late 2008, mostly domestic assaults, where they had to dismiss charges because witnesses or victims relocated or otherwise became unavailable.
In some places around the state, it's taking longer for court clerks to process default judgments, leaving creditors unable to collect. Reviews of conservator accounts are also lagging in some counties, jeopardizing the safety of the protected person's money.
At one point in Ramsey County last year, it took 90 days to process an order to pay child support, when normally it takes 45. And late last year, appointments to file emergency orders for protection -- designed to stop someone from physically harming someone else -- took more than a week instead of a day or two.
Such delays trouble the state's chief justice, who has given dozens of speeches in a campaign to fund the judiciary.
"I lie awake at night worrying about the woman who needs an order for protection and can't get it on time, the arrest warrant that doesn't get issued on time, the trial that doesn't happen on time," Gildea said.
A divorce case lingers
Delays in what some consider less urgent matters are proving troublesome, too. When Gennett Pike filed for divorce in Olmsted County in early 2008, the first trial date was scheduled 13 months later. When that date came, the case was delayed another five months to make way for higher priority cases.
Meanwhile, the couple's contentious split resulted in more arguments.
"When a case takes this long to get resolved, there's many little issues that come up along the way, therefore there's more opportunity to go back to court to fight about them," said Pike's attorney, Jill Frieders.
The main issues in the case took more than two years to resolve, twice as long as usual, she estimated.
Pike said the slow-moving court docket left her with extra anxiety and expense. Custody of the couple's three children went undecided. Pike, living in an apartment, felt stuck financially.
"You still owe on the mortgage, you know, all the bills ... you can't change your insurance, you can't change your beneficiaries ... You're totally just still tied to this. There's just no moving on," Pike said. "It's extremely stressful."
Overworked public defenders
In criminal cases, it's not only the courts causing delays. Most defendants are represented by public defenders -- another group providing constitutionally mandated service that has gone underfunded for years. Minnesota public defenders average about 769 case units a year, up from 746 in 2009 and almost double the number recommended by the American Bar Association. When public defenders are overbooked, the whole system slows down as judges, prosecutors and defendants are forced to wait.
In Dakota County, public defender Susan Elias bounced among three courtrooms one recent Monday morning. She was scheduled to be in each courtroom at 9 a.m., representing five clients, three of whom she had never met.
When Judge Joseph Carter's courtroom appeared busy, she headed toward the door to go to another. Carter stopped her on the way out. "One of our problems is keeping everybody in the same spot," Carter said.
In Fillmore County, a judge is considering a contempt of court order against a public defender and his boss for choosing a scheduled trial in Olmsted over a scheduled trial in Fillmore last September.
Defender Richard Smith helped defend a gross misdemeanor drunken driving and misdemeanor assault case in Olmsted County because the defendant requested a speedy trial and his lawyer was inexperienced. So Smith didn't show up for a felony criminal sexual conduct case in Fillmore, telling the court that besides the timing conflict, he hadn't had time to adequately prepare the case. Smith and his boss, Third Judicial District Chief Public Defender Karen Duncan, are fighting the contempt case.
In Steele County, Judge Casey Christian praised Duncan for "candidly and courageously" admitting her office was understaffed when Duncan filed motions in more than 40 cases to rescind the appointment of public defenders, saying she did not have enough attorneys to provide adequate representation. Christian ordered Duncan to hire private attorneys for those cases. The state Board of Public Defense wound up using $30,000 of a $500,000 emergency fund to pay for those lawyers.
'Back to the basics'
To stave off more reductions in service, court advocates are looking at ways to boost revenue. The Supreme Court is deciding whether to extend an increase in attorney registration fees to help fund public defense. Another possibility includes a tax on legal services.
Some of the county's 87 courthouses could be closed as part of a consolidation. More court appearances could be conducted through interactive TV. Expensive drug courts, widely believed to save money in the long run, could also be vulnerable.
Others say de-criminalizing more low-level crime -- making them payable tickets -- is another option.
The judiciary, which consumes about 2 percent of the state's overall budget, is not a department in state government, Limmer pointed out. It is a branch of government with responsibilities outlined in state and federal constitutions.
"We really need to get back to the basics of what is government supposed to do," he said.
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102