As chief judge of Hennepin County District Court, the trial court with the biggest caseload in the state, I know firsthand the importance of a strong, adequately funded judicial branch.
Our courts play a crucial role in our democracy: We protect public safety, ensure individual rights, allow commerce to flourish, and serve as a “check and balance” on the other two branches of government.
We are not a state agency, but a separate co-equal branch of government, that should be funded as such. Despite the constitutional magnitude of our work, the judicial branch accounts for less than 2 percent of the state’s general fund.
With Minnesota currently enjoying a stable budget and a $1.65 billion surplus, state leaders have a tremendous opportunity this legislative session to strengthen our justice system, and help improve the safety of our communities, and our ability to process cases in a timely manner.
If we met on the street, this is what I would share about what’s at stake in this budget debate:
- Treatment courts promote public safety by addressing the source of the defendant’s issues: We need to sustain the state’s veterans courts, drug courts, DWI courts, and other treatment court programs, many of which currently rely on short-term and uncertain funding. Participants who make it through these intensive programs say they are life-changing; the public (and taxpayers) benefit from improved public safety and fewer offenders going back to prison.
- Help for offenders with mental health issues: We must address the increasing need for psychological evaluations in criminal and civil commitment cases in order to properly determine if they can stand trial, or be civilly committed.
- Interpreters for non-English speaking or deaf / hard of hearing: These professionals ensure due process in court proceedings so that participants understand what is happening to them.
- Attracting strong judicial and staff applicants: Qualified judges and staff provide access to justice in a timely and effective manner. Currently, many county attorneys make more money than trial court judges, and the number of lawyers applying for our judicial vacancies is down. We also must pay well enough to attract and retain qualified staff to process cases using our sophisticated electronic court management system, plus interact with court users, many of whom are not familiar with the justice system.
- Keeping our court records safe: Improving the cybersecurity of our electronic case record and the private data stored by our courts will promote public trust and confidence in what we do. Our court system has been the target of hackers, so we need to take the appropriate steps now to make our systems more impenetrable.
The Legislature’s current budget proposals would fail to fund many of these critical priorities. I strongly encourage all Hennepin County legislators to make our justice system a priority this session and ask all concerned citizens to reinforce this message to your legislators.
We should not ignore Minnesota’s constitutional mandate to provide equal and timely access to justice. Now is the time to strengthen Minnesota’s justice system, not jeopardize it.
Ivy Bernhardson is the Chief Judge of Hennepin County District Court in Minneapolis.