By Minnesota Third Judicial District Chief Judge
Jeffrey D. Thompson
As a district court judge, I know firsthand the importance of a strong, adequately-funded judiciary. Our courts play a crucial role in our democracy. As Chief Judge of the Third Judicial District, I see the impact of the courts throughout southeastern Minnesota, from rural one judge counties like Dodge, Houston, Fillmore, Wabasha and Waseca to metropolitan Olmsted County.
In my 18 years as a district court judge I have dealt with a wide variety of concerns. From budget concerns to bursting pipes flooding the Winona County Courthouse. The most recent recession hit the judicial system hard, as it did in many other areas of our state. Years of budget cuts and freezes had left our courts severely understaffed, resulting in backlogs and delays. Cuts to other parts of the justice system had jeopardized access to justice. When our court system is underfunded, our whole state faces serious consequences.
In recent years the Governor and Legislature have worked in a bipartisan manner to begin the crucial work of rebuilding Minnesota’s justice system. The Minnesota Judicial Branch has been nationally recognized by experts in the field as the best governed judicial branch in the United States. Why would anyone want to tamper with that?
More stable funding for our courts has resulted in cases being processed in a timelier manner and expanded access for those who cannot afford an attorney. With Minnesota currently enjoying a stable budget and $1.65 billion budget surplus, state leaders have a tremendous opportunity this legislative session to continue this important effort to strengthen our justice system. Doing so would help improve the safety of our communities and ensure that our courts can preserve the rights and freedoms of all citizens. The Minnesota Judicial Branch is asking for a budget increase that represents about 3% of the total projected budget surplus.
It is disappointing to learn that the budget proposals currently in the Legislative Conference Committee are severely short-changing Minnesota’s justice system. These proposed budgets, if passed, would severely harm the court’s ability to process cases in a timely and efficient manner, and would limit access to justice for the people of Minnesota. Here is what’s at stake in this budget debate:
• Ensuring there are enough judges across the state to resolve cases timely.
• Sustaining and progressing the state’s drug and treatment courts to aid non-violent offenders in becoming contributing and responsible members of society. I know firsthand that these courts have saved lives and families.
• Addressing the rising impact of mental illness on all court cases.
• Ensuring access to justice for non-English speaking participants.
• Improving the cybersecurity of the state’s electronic case record and the private data stored by our courts.
• Ensuring that attorneys, court personnel, and judges are properly funded and staffed. This helps the court system provide more efficient and timely assistance to the people of Minnesota.
• Properly funding Minnesota’s Guardian ad Litem program to help protect Minnesota’s children.
These are important, necessary funding requests aimed at making our courts more accessible, more efficient, and better able to serve the people of Minnesota. These priorities need to be adequately funded.
Making our justice system a priority does not mean that lawmakers have to ignore other legislative priorities. Funding the Judicial Branch at the base level requested still leave 97% of the projected budget surplus untouched.
I have been proud to serve as Chief Judge of the Third Judicial District for the past four years. The Minnesota Judicial Branch runs a pretty tight ship. Our budget request to the Governor and Legislature are based on our legitimate needs, not wants. There is no fat. We need to be able to attract and retain good people at all levels. So far, we’ve been pretty lucky. This is not a time for back-sliding. Please encourage your local legislators to make our justice system a priority in this legislative session. Public safety is a core function of government. Independent and impartial courts are the linchpin of an orderly democracy.
The Honorable Jeffrey D. Thompson is Chief Judge of Minnesota’s Third Judicial District. The Third Judicial District consists of the 11 counties of Southeast Minnesota including Dodge, Fillmore, Freeborn, Houston, Mower, Olmsted, Rice, Steele, Wabasha, Waseca, and Winona. Twenty-four judges and one referee serve the District. In 2016, more than 66,000 cases were filed in Third Judicial District courts.