Chief Justice makes funding plea for MN courts

The chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court is urging state lawmakers to provide adequate funding for the state court system.

Chief Justice Lorie Gildea testified Thursday during a conference committee hearing, where House and Senate negotiators were working out the differences between their budget bills for judiciary and public safety. She said it was a rare appearance by a chief justice in such a gathering.

Gildea, who is the administrative head of the judicial branch, reminded committee members that the courts are a vital part of the government’s basic functions.

“The judiciary is not a mere state agency,” Gildea said. “The judiciary is a branch of government and it deserves to be funded as such.”

The judicial branch is seeking a $51.4 million increase over its current funding levels. The bulk of the request ($42 million) would pay salary and benefits for judges and staff.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton included the full amount in his budget proposal. The House and Senate bills provided only partial increases.

Gildea said the judicial branch made a “modest, targeted” request that is needed to process cases in a timely manner and ensure access to justice.

“Public safety is jeopardized when we do not have a fully-funded, functioning judiciary,” she said.

Funding for the courts also came up earlier in the day during a private meeting that included Dayton, House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka.

Dayton told reporters that he stressed the importance of funding the chief justice’s full request. He said he hears about the growing demands on the court system every time he interviews candidates for judicial vacancies.

“Every one of them talks about the increased case load in their particular judicial district,” Dayton said.

Daudt, R-Zimmerman, said he appreciates and respects the judicial branch. But Daudt also stressed that he’s trying to keep spending in check.

“We have to decide how to take those resources and spread them across all of state government,” Daudt said. “We have to make decisions and sometimes you have to prioritize. Sometimes it means that people get 75 percent of their request, not 100 percent.”

Gazleka, R-Nisswa, said he was trying to schedule a meeting with Gildea to listen to her concerns.

“We’ll take a serious look at that,” Gazelka said.