Republicans in charge in both Congress and the Minnesota Legislature are hinting that they intend to put a big squeeze on the budgets of many government operations. By contrast, a Republican appointee, Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea, is at the helm of the Minnesota court system that's asking the Legislature for a 7.9 percent biennium-over-biennium appropriation increase.
Has Gildea forsaken fiscal conservatism? We think not. Rather, the courts' request reflects the judicial branch's struggle to cope with a demographic reality that is already affecting — or soon will — every public and private enterprise in Minnesota that relies on skilled workers. Baby boomers are aging out of the workforce, leaving a shortage of skilled workers in their wake.
That shift in human capital is keenly felt in Minnesota enterprises that run on brainpower, as the courts and many other government services do. A major cut in public payrolls now risks serious damage to government's ability to hire and retain the talent required to serve the public well.
Gildea reports that by 2020, at least 37 percent of the state court judges who were on the bench in 2015 will have either retired or turned 65 years old, putting them less than five years away from the system's age 70 retirement mandate. The exodus will be nearly as large among other court personnel, a third of whom are due to retire in the next 10 years.
Could Minnesota get by with fewer judges? Not without adding to caseloads that have long been heavier than the national average. Those loads are increasing; last year alone, the number of major criminal cases filed in Minnesota jumped 12 percent, and drug-related case filings increased 25 percent. The courts are seeking legislative authorization for two additional trial court judges and related staff, bringing the state's total trial court roster from 291 to 293.
Could judicial salaries be reduced? Not without shrinking the pool of top candidates for judicial appointment. Minnesota district judges are paid $149,605. That's already less than some of the county attorneys and assistant county attorneys who appear before them — a circumstance that won't inspire those assistants to become judges.
Legislators are hearing similar tight-labor reports from many services that rely on state funding. Home health care workers and licensed child care providers are in very short supply in some parts of the state; a teacher shortage is worsening, particularly in outstate Minnesota; colleges and universities fret about their ability to compete for top faculty. All of those voices bear heed. But the courts are so central to a functioning democracy that they rank as a separate branch of government. Their funding request should rank among the Legislature's top priorities.