Minnesota Court Officials Look To Improve Judge, Staff Pay

By Don Davis

Minnesota judges for years told the public that justice delayed is justice denied, and budget cuts delay justice.

Budget struggles eased two years ago and now court officials seek a budget bump to raise judges and staff members’ pay.

“Our priority last (legislative budget) session was to stop the bleeding,” Chief Justice Lorie Gildea said in an interview.

“So this session, our priority is our people,” she added. “We need all the people we have in order to steer this ship.”

Court workers received one-time raises last year, but no permanent pay increases have come their way for almost five years.

The budget proposed by the courts, and backed by Gov. Mark Dayton, would give staffers 3 percent pay raises each of the next two years. Judges would get 4 percent raises each year, with some of that going to a pension fund.

The proposal for district courts around the state calls for spending $502.8 million for the two years beginning July 1, an increase of $32.5 million.

The Supreme Court budget proposal would spend $87.2 million in the next two years, up $4 million from the current budget cycle. The Appeals Court budget, meanwhile, would rise $1.3 million to $21.7 million.

Legislative committees are considering court spending as part of an overall $38 billion, two-year budget they must pass by May 20.

Early legislative discussion produced a disagreement about whether judges should get more money.

“We would be better off having more judges,” Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, said in a recent Senate Judiciary Finance Division hearing. “That would be a better use of our money.”

She said judges are paid enough already. “These are not the economic times to give raises.”

However, committee Chairman Ron Latz, like Gildea, said that judges need to be paid more so lawyers can be convinced to become judges.

“A district court judge now makes less than an associate at a large corporate (law) firm in Minnesota,” the St. Louis Park Democrat said.

But Ortman countered: “Being a judge is public service.”

“If they want to make money, they should go and make money,” she said. “If they want to go into public service … they should realize they will not be as well compensated as they would be in a law firm.”

Gildea makes $160,579 a year, while her high court associates are paid $145,981 and Appeals Court judges receive $135,552.

District court judges earn $129,124; the budget plan would up that to $134,000.

A recent study by Macalester College professor Karine Moe reported that judges should receive 5.8 percent raises each of the next two years just to have the same buying power judges had in 2002.

Minnesota judges are near the bottom third in pay compared to other states.

Discussion about giving raises follows the courts catching up with a backlog of cases blamed on budget cuts. The backlog forced some cases to be dismissed.

The courts are in the midst of a mostly technology-based redesign.

“We were redesigning before redesign was cool,” the chief justice said.

Technology allows court workers in offices with relatively few cases, mostly in rural areas, to help out the busier court locations.

“We can move work around where it is needed,” Gildea said.

Part of the redesign is eliminating some administrators.

While technology-oriented redesign continues, Gildea said, court workers remain vital.

“We have to attract the best and the brightest…” she said. “We need the techno geeks to come help us.”

Court workers deal with difficult issues every day.

“We don’t see people on their best days,” Gildea said.