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District court judges present their case to judiciary committee

On the bench, judges must be impartial, but at the Legislature, they can – and do — advocate for themselves.

That’s what several judges did Tuesday before the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee, where they outlined their legislative agendas for this biennium to set the stage for their upcoming budget request.

Washington County Judge John Hoffman, president of the Minnesota District Judges Association, outlined three session priorities for judges in the state:

  • manage case backlogs resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • maintain stability in the funds used to pay pensions for retired judges; and
  • competitive judicial salaries.

Regarding judicial salaries, Hoffman noted they have increased little since 2002 when adjusted for inflation, and that they remain uncompetitive to both private sector attorneys and public sector county attorneys.

“We are not tone deaf to the fact that there’s an economic crisis that accompanies this pandemic,” he said. “But we want to simply educate the Legislature and make you aware of compensation concerns that we have.”

With that in mind, Hoffman said his association will make only a modest salary increase request for the 2022-23 biennium.

Hoffman noted that electronic hearings via Zoom or other technologies, in place since mid-2020, are more complicated and often take longer to conduct than in-person hearings, and therefore trial courts have a mounting backlog of cases.

Hoffman said he is “maybe about 50% as effective” in a remote hearing compared to when he has people in his courtroom.

He predicted a coming rush of backlogged cases moving forward when courts return to the pre-pandemic norm of in-person hearings and trials, adding that lawmakers should be aware this will likely require additional state resources.


Judicial pension fund concerns

The pension fund for retiring state judges remains underfunded, said Jonathan Jasper, a judge in the Tenth Judicial District who sits on the bench in Anoka.

He said the pension fund was started in 1974 with a zero balance, but it had to start payments to retiring judges right away.

“We began underfunded and remain that way to this day,” he said.

Since 2018, the state has contributed $12 million every biennium to the Judges’ Retirement Fund, Jasper said, and that amount remains needed in order to keep the fund solvent.


Treatment court successes

Treatment courts are special kinds of district courts that will also be funded through a budget request that will be heard in the judiciary committee.

Jenny Walker Jasper, a judge in the Tenth Judicial District, said these courts have a great track record in diverting people with mental and chemical dependency problems away from jails and into treatment programs.

“Treatment courts use extensive, comprehensive supervision, drug testing, mental health treatment services, and immediate sanctions and incentives to help people make lifelong changes to keep them out of the criminal justice system,” she said.

In her presentation, Walker Jasper noted the state has 68 operational treatment courts, covering 73 of the state’s 87 counties. They include adult and juvenile drug courts, DWI courts, veteran courts, and mental health courts.

And in good news for the state budget, Walker Jasper cited a report from the Wilder Foundation that found for every dollar the state invests in adult drug courts, it saves $1.50 due to reducing repeat offenses and reducing incarceration rates.

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