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Judicial Branch Initiative - Providing Access

Wednesday, August 2, 2017  
Posted by: Laura Fenstermaker
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The Minnesota Judicial Council recently approved a reengineering initiative aimed at sustaining court staffing levels in some of Minnesota’s least populated counties.
 
The goal of the initiative is to ensure that all Minnesotans have access to court services, resources, and assistance at their nearest county courthouse. The plan also seeks to improve the efficiency of court operations by centralizing certain case processing work – taking work that used to be done in 87 district courts, and centralizing that work among staff experts working in courthouses in greater Minnesota.
 
“The Minnesota Judicial Council is committed to ensuring access to justice for all Minnesotans, no matter where in the state they reside,” said Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea. “We are also dedicated to delivering to Minnesotans a justice system that is efficient, effective, and well-managed. Through this initiative, we are leveraging new technologies that will allow us to do our work more efficiently, while also making sure all Minnesotans have access to the help they need when facing a legal issue.”
 
The Minnesota Judicial Branch is charged with ensuring access to justice for all Minnesotans, and maintains court operations in 106 locations across the state – more locations than any other part of state government. But the scope of work of Minnesota’s courts varies considerably from county to county.
 
Nearly 500,000 cases were filed in Hennepin County District Court in 2016, and those cases were heard by 62 judges, 16 referees, and five child support magistrates, and processed by hundreds of staff.
 
By contrast, in many rural counties court is in session once or twice per week, and judges may hear cases in several different counties in their district in a week. In 17 county courthouses, the Judicial Branch has fewer than two full-time employees processing case filings and staffing the customer service windows.
 
Over the past year, Judicial Branch leaders have been exploring strategies to improve the administration of justice in the state, with a focus on sustaining court operations in each of Minnesota’s 87 counties.
 
The initiative recently adopted by the Judicial Council will centralize and shift case processing work to certain parts of greater Minnesota, ensuring that each courthouse has enough workload to justify at least two full-time staff. By ensuring at least two court employees work in each of the state’s courthouses, the Judicial Branch will be able to maintain regular customer service hours in all 87 counties.
 
The initiative will enhance staffing and service levels in 17 counties across four judicial districts. Highlights of the plan include:
  • Moving the Minnesota Judicial Branch Central Appeals Unit (CAU) from the Fourth Judicial District  (Hennepin County) to the district courts in Lincoln and Pipestone counties, which are both part of Minnesota’s Fifth Judicial District. The CAU serves as a liaison between the state’s 87 trial courts and two appellate courts, preparing a comprehensive file of relevant district court documents and exhibits to send to the Court of Appeals or the Minnesota Supreme Court when a case is appealed.
  • The work of processing expedited child support orders from all 87 district courts will be centralized among a group of specialized staff working in Minnesota’s Eighth Judicial District in western Minnesota.
  • Staff in the Ninth Judicial District in northwest Minnesota will assume the work related to jury qualification and summoning for all 87 district courts.
  • In addition, both the Fifth Judicial District and the Sixth Judicial District in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region are centralizing certain work functions in some of the smaller counties in those respective districts. For example, the Sixth Judicial District has established a centralized Copy and Imaging Center in Lake County, where staff receives and processes all document copy requests for Carlton, Cook, Lake, and St. Louis county district courts.
Final implementation of the plan will take place over the next several months.
 
State Court Administrator Jeff Shorba said the ability to shift case processing work across district and county lines is one of the benefits of Minnesota’s transition to electronic case records.
 
“The Minnesota Judicial Branch recognizes that we have a responsibility to provide justice on a statewide basis, from our largest, most urban counties, to the smallest counties in greater Minnesota,” said Shorba. “Thankfully, our transition to electronic case records has allowed us to think strategically about how to manage our courts in the most efficient way possible. By centralizing parts of our case processing work, and bringing more of that work to our least populated counties, we not only become more efficient, but we ensure that we can keep each courthouse in the state open to serve all Minnesotans.”

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