Minnesota’s judicial branch is facing a wave of retirements, and the budget request it’s sending to the governor aims to make court jobs competitive with other careers in the legal field.
Nearly 40 percent of the state’s judges are expected to have retired or be approaching retirement age within the next three years, branch officials said, and a third of all judicial branch staff will reach retirement age in the next decade.
Most of the judicial branch’s $44.7 million budget request for 2020-21 would go to compensation and benefits, including enough to give 3.5 percent raises to judges and staff in each of the next two years.
“We’re operating a branch of government for less than 2 percent of the state’s general fund,” Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea said. “So it’s a really small piece of the pie, but the consequences of not maintaining an adequate judiciary are huge.”
Gov. Tim Walz will release his budget proposal on Feb. 19, and the Legislature will have until May 20 to agree on the state’s next two-year budget.
The judicial branch’s budget request also includes a proposal to add two trial court judges to account for a rise in complex cases like child protection and drug cases. The last budget cycle funded two new judgeships, one in St. Cloud and the other in Bemidji.
The request also seeks $2.1 million to cover court-related costs associated with a 48 percent rise in psychological exams ordered in criminal and civil commitment cases since 2014. A smaller portion of the branch’s budget request — $612,000 — would continue operating five drug and veterans specialty treatment courts that were set up using federal money.
After receiving funding to launch a cybersecurity program in 2017, the judicial branch is also asking for $5 million to add two staff members and purchase additional technology to safeguard against cyberattacks, data breaches and other IT-related intrusions.
“We’re constantly under attack,” State Court Administrator Jeffrey Shorba said. “Luckily we’re able to stop them but we want to make sure that we can continue to do that.”
But the bulk of the courts’ request emphasizes personnel. Gildea said the state court system is still feeling the effects of a five-year salary freeze imposed because of the Great Recession.
A 2018 report found that corporate lawyers with more than 10 years experience earn 33 percent more than Minnesota trial judges and that senior lawyers at private firms with the same experience make 15 percent more. Many county attorneys, and some of their chief assistants, also make roughly 3 percent more than the district judges they appear before, the report found.
“We do it for the purpose of public service and we know there is a financial sacrifice,” Anoka County District Judge Jonathan Jasper, chairman of the state District Judges Association’s pension and benefits committee, told a House judiciary committee last month. “The question becomes, the farther we fall behind, the more sacrifices we’re asking people to make and at what point are we losing good people? We think we’re at the point where we’re losing good people who won’t apply.”
When asked last month about the approach he would take on judicial budget proposals, Walz said “our intention is to make sure the budget reflects the needs of each one of our agencies and the judiciary.”
Gildea and Shorba have both met with Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, among other administration officials, to discuss the budget request. Shorba will also present the request to committees in both the state House and Senate this month.