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Justice at stake in state’s budgeting

Date Published: 05/01/2009


Justice at stake in state's budgeting
The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Feb. 10 reversed a Chicago woman's conviction for third- and fourth-degree assault on a St. Paul police officer, because nine months elapsed between the incident and her district court trial. "Appellant was deprived her right to a speedy trial as guaranteed by the U.S. and Minnesota constitutions," wrote the court, in a decision that some court watchers fear will become more commonplace as courts struggle financially.

Tight money in state government has produced this possibility: In Minnesota, a state that prides itself on upholding the rule of law, the state Supreme Court chief justice is considering saving money by suspending prosecution of 18 minor crimes, including most traffic, truancy, property damage and harassment charges.

Chief Justice Eric Magnuson says he will have no other acceptable options if state funding for the courts is cut 5 percent or more from current levels, as Gov. Tim Pawlenty has proposed. Magnuson says any other choice would involve damaging the ability to prosecute more serious criminal cases.

Pawlenty, who appointed Magnuson, countered last week that court budgets need trimming to pressure the judiciary to adopt cost-saving technology and streamline their operations, the Associated Press reported.

The comment had to rankle in the State Judicial Center, where efforts to streamline court administration through consolidation and technology have been the story of this decade. Around the state, court service hours have been cut; e-records have replaced paper record-keeping; county-based court services have been consolidated. The chief court administrator, Sue Dosal, won a national award earlier this year for leading those efforts.

The streamlining push hasn't reached its limits, Magnuson and Dosal acknowledge. More can and will be done. For example, in the works is a move toward "e-citations" and fine collection for a variety of petty misdemeanor offenses. That will save $2.5 million to $3 million per year in a system that collects $200 million per year in fines that flow to state and local government coffers.

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