Even young schoolchildren learn about the need for fair and impartial courts to protect our rights, resolve disputes, and keep dangerous people off the streets. Democracy, we learn, depends on it.
Minnesota courts face budgets that don't keep up with inflation and the growth in demand. At times, they have faced outright cuts. The Governor and many Legislators argue that any administrator can make modest reductions without a serious negative impact. But it is naive to believe that one can cut year after year without destroying the quality of justice.
A few years ago, several Minnesota judges testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about inadequate funding for the courts, and its impact on the justice system. They talked about too little time for complex cases, family law disputes becoming strained, and people losing confidence in the courts because they didn't feel they received an adequate hearing.
Ramsey County Judge Kathleen Gearin warned that if we don't provide adequate support, we would be delivering "McJustice" – a fast food version of justice. Since Judge Gearin's warning Minnesota court budgets have continued to fall further behind despite the growing number and complexity of cases.
Court administrators have worked hard to make the system as efficient as possible. They carefully analyze the average amount of time allotted for various types of cases so the time of judges and other court employees is used wisely. The numbers are sobering. With the budget courts have, they allot an average of only 40 minutes for a major family law case involving domestic abuse. Lives are at stake here, yet in the current system we expect a judge to hear from everyone involved, often at several hearings, then deliberate and make a wise decision in an average of only 40 minutes.
Only 55 minutes are alloted for a serious, repeat DWI offense including the judge's time in court for arraignment, trial, sentencing, all deliberations, plus any time spent reviewing documents related to the case. Conciliation Court? When businesses or consumers have been cheated by someone, they deserve a fair hearing. But the court is able to allot an average of only five minutes per case. Judge Judy and other "reality" TV show judges have far more time to hear such a case and make a decision than judges in real courts in Minnesota.
Rice County Judge Tom Neuville said he is particularly troubled by the lack of time for thoughtful discussion and deliberation in juvenile cases. Judge Neuville faces countless young people whose lives are messed up with problems at home, at school, and with the law. He says that the parties in each case have a chance to briefly state their case and desired outcome, but there is far too little time to ask questions, have the parties discuss options and potential outcomes, and work out the best result. Without the benefit of the time and information he wants, he has to make crucial decisions about placing the child out of home, sending them to chemical dependency treatment, or other options. The right choice could begin the juvenile's path to a successful future. A wrong choice could be disastrous for the young person, their family, and others in the community.
For those who suspect that lazy public servants are the problem, it is worth pointing out that the lack of time for adequate deliberation is not due to a short judicial work day. Judge Neuville routinely puts in ten hour days in the office, plus the work he brings home.
As a result of 2008 budget cuts and the resulting layoffs of court personnel, the backlog for simply entering criminal complaints and citations in the computer has grown from one day to more than two weeks in Ramsey County. The judicial process cannot even begin until these cases are in the computer.
Public defenders, the attorneys who are supposed to ensure people get fair treatment in court – a fundamental right guaranteed by the constitution – have seen deeper budget cuts. Despite facing already unrealistic caseloads, 2008 budget cuts cost them an eighth of their attorneys. Public defenders agonize over how they are going to represent people they have barely even had a chance to talk with before they appear in court. Judges often need to postpone cases because public defenders have not had a chance to make even a cursory preparation for trial. Justice delayed is justice denied, for the victim, the accused, and all of society.
To cut costs, Minnesota has reduced per diem compensation to jurors. Ten years ago, it was $30/day. Even at that rate, some jurors in the state's four-month-long tobacco lawsuit faced financial hardship. One had to file for bankruptcy because of months of unpaid leave from work. Instead of increasing the compensation to help jurors facing hardship, the per diem was cut to $20, and this year, to an insultingly low $10 per day. When our judicial system drives jurors – citizens who are performing their constitutional obligation – into difficult financial straits, something is seriously wrong.
There are places where government spending is inappropriate or wasteful. But when the Governor and many of the politicians who rant the loudest about wasteful spending are the ones who propose inadequate funding for the courts, it is clear that they are trying to run democracy on the cheap.
Our democracy promises us more than McJustice.
It is time to deliver on that promise.