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Chief Justice: 'We just don't have the money'

Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson (left) and 8th District Chief Judge Paul Nelson stopped in Stevens County District Court Monday as part of a two-day, 13-county tour of the district.

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

Minnesota's judicial system was spared from ever deeper budget cuts that had been proposed when Gov. Tim Pawlenty earlier this month made unilateral reductions in the state's budget for the next two years.

But, "we're not out of the woods yet," said 8th Judicial District Chief Judge Paul Nelson.

Nelson and Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson were in Morris Monday, visiting Stevens County District Court as part of a two-day tour of the 13-county district.

Magnuson said the tour served as a way to gauge the impact of judiciary budget reductions on district court operations, and to thank counties for their support in lobbying the Legislature and Pawlenty on behalf of the judicial system.

At one point, Pawlenty had proposed a 10 percent across-the-board cut of the judiciary. Magnuson sounded a sobering alarm, stating that the system might not have enough money to prosecute some offenses -- such as speeding and other non-felony crimes -- and that staff cuts throughout the state could be significant.

But while Pawlenty used his power to "unallocate" to reduce aid to cities and counties, delay school payments and slash the budgets of other agencies, the judiciary was spared, in a relative sense. An additional two-year reduction totals about 1 percent, Magnuson said.

But the judiciary was $23 million short of its budgets coming into the biennium, and it doesn't appear there will be much in the way of loose change laying around in coming years.

Nelson said the 8th district will have budgets reduced by $1 million over the next three years, and there are estimates the state could be facing a shortfall of almost $5 billion when lawmakers convene to work on the 2012-2013 budget.

The district reduced staff positions, including one in Stevens County District Court, and local court administration offices close at 2 p.m. on Fridays, Nelson said.

"You do your best to provide the best level of services possible, but you can't keep cutting without some significant curtailing of services," Nelson said.

Magnuson, Nelson and Tim Ostby, Administrator for the 7th and 8th judicial districts, met with Stevens County Commissioner Herb Kloos, County Coordinator Jim Thoreen, Stevens County District Court Judge Gerald Seibel and County Attorney Charles Glasrud.

Magnuson said the primary problem facing the judiciary is the same facing the rest of the state: "We just don't have the money," he said.

"You try and save money in one area and it often ends up coming out of somebody else's pocket," he said.

The judiciary is doing what it can to hold down costs and make the system more efficient, such as studying a centralized payables system for fines.

But it's the personal costs, in lost jobs and reduced wages, that are Magnuson's focus right now.

Supreme Court justices used to be charged with hearing and deciding cases. The political aspects of the job are growing, which means more interaction with the other branches of state government. In that role, he said he's tried to lay out the consequences of judiciary cuts in a matter-of-fact manner.

That includes more cost-cutting measures and the possibility of redistricting, he said.

There are a number of redistricting scenarios under consideration, but Magnuson said, "we're really in the kick it around stage."

But significant changes could be in the offing as the budget struggles continue, much in the same way the state and local governments are weighing consolidation.

"We have to ask those questions," he said.