Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
Like most government functions, Minnesota's court system experienced serious COVID-related challenges during the past two years. It had to turn on a dime to make "appearing" in court a remote, online experience for users and staff.
As a result of what's been learned, the court has taken an intelligent technology approach to solving pandemic and backlog issues. To continue its innovative work and offer more competitive compensation, state court officials seek a reasonable 2.8% budget increase for 2023. Lawmakers and Gov. Tim Walz should honor that request.
Judicial branch leaders are asking for a $21.47 million budget increase for 2023, or 2.79% above the two-year current total budget of $768.6 million. Most of that hike — about $17.7 million — is for salaries and benefits. It would increase pay for judges by 6% and boost the compensation pool for other court staff by 6%. The court system employs 320 judges and 2,500 other staff.
According to the National Center for State Courts, pay for Minnesota judges ranks 20th nationally compared to other states. Annual judicial salaries range from $169,264 for district court judges to $210,496 for Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea.
Gildea recently told the Star Tribune Editorial Board that state courts are having trouble retaining staff. The share of employees who left employment with the judicial branch has increased by 42%, and the number of applicants for open positions has fallen by 51% since 2018.
Gildea said that's partly because judicial branch pay has fallen behind other public sector agencies. Currently, judges in some counties make less than the county attorneys who appear before them and, in some cases, even less than the assistant county attorneys. Improving compensation would help address the disparity within the public sector and help the court system recruit and retain skilled workers.
Despite budget pressures, the state court system has started important reforms over the past several years and new initiatives such as treatment courts, pretrial release programs, and repealing bail schedules as part of pretrial release. And the system has improved its support for self-represented litigants.
After nearly two years of primarily virtual court proceedings, the administrative policy-setting council for the courts approved making online hearings a permanent feature in many cases. Gildea called the new policy "one of the most important and consequential decisions" the council has made. She added that using virtual hearings, when appropriate, improves access to the courts and has led to fewer missed appearances.
Although judges may diverge from the plan if in-person proceedings are necessary, many noncriminal cases will occur remotely, including harassment, eviction, family, and major and minor civil court hearings. The state's 10 judicial districts will decide if criminal court cases will be conducted remotely. The new policy takes effect on June 6.
For all it does to serve Minnesotans, the state's judicial system deserves the modest budget increase its leaders are asking for to maintain and improve court services while remaining a national leader in innovation.