A well-functioning judicial system is central to maintaining a strong democracy. That third leg of government dispenses justice and must be adequately funded to do so.
In that spirit, leaders of Minnesota’s judicial branch are seeking a $44.7 million budget increase for 2020-21, about a 6.4% hike, to support a system with 320 judges and 2,700 other employees in 106 locations across the state. About $35 million would cover salary and benefit increases, including enough to give 3.5 percent raises to judges and create a 3.5 percent compensation pool for staff in each of the next two years.
Among the cadre of judges on the bench in 2017, nearly 40% were expected to have retired or be approaching retirement age by 2022, and a third of all judicial branch staff will reach retirement age by 2029. That translates into a significant amount of hiring, appointing and replacing in the next few years, and salaries must be competitive to attract quality candidates.
Reductions to the judicial branch budget during the Great Recession hit the system hard and resulted in a five-year salary freeze. Although the pay freeze ended, in some cases judges now earn less that the county attorneys who appear before them. There’s also a smaller pool of talented private-sector attorneys willing to step up and apply for judgeships.
A 2018 report prepared for the Minnesota District Court Judges Association concluded that corporate lawyers with more than 10 years of experience earn 33 percent more than the state’s trial judges and that senior lawyers at private firms with the same experience make 15 percent more.
Pay for Minnesota judges ranks 19th in the country, according to the National Center for State Courts. Annual judicial salaries range from $157,179 for district court judges to $195,466 for Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea.
Beyond the personnel costs, the 2020-21 budget request includes about $9 million in four deserving areas of court service — two new judges and staff, treatment courts, mandated psychological exams and cybersecurity. The additional judges would help handle the increase in complex cases such as those that involve child protection. And the budget increase would devote about $2 million to pay for a nearly 50 percent rise in mandated psychological exams in criminal and civil commitment cases during the past five years.
The boost in technology funding is needed to protect a court system with vast amounts of private data. “We’re constantly under attack,” State Court Administrator Jeffrey Shorba recently told the Star Tribune. “Luckily we’re able to stop them, but we want to make sure we can continue to do that.”
The increased funding would also help continue five drug and veterans specialty treatment courts that have been operated using federal startup funds.
“We’re operating a branch of government for about 1.5 percent of the state’s general fund,” Gildea recently told the Editorial Board. “It’s a really small piece of the pie — and it’s really a maintenance request.”
Despite tight budgets, the state court system has managed to get started on important reforms and new initiatives — sometimes with outside financial assistance — such as treatment courts, pretrial release programs, and repealing bail schedules as part of pretrial release. The branch has also beefed up its in-person and online services to assist self-represented litigants.
Minnesotans are fortunate to have a court system that not only hears cases but works to build a better Minnesota. Gov. Tim Walz and the Legislature should support those efforts and approve the judiciary’s budget request.