Column: What you should know about your courtsFor many people court is where traffic tickets are paid, criminals are prosecuted, divorces are processed and Judge Judy presides. In other words, a place to be avoided.
By: Edward Lynch, First Judicial District Chief Judge, The Republican Eagle
For many people court is where traffic tickets are paid, criminals are prosecuted, divorces are processed and Judge Judy presides.
In other words, a place to be avoided.
It is not surprising that few people think about the constitutional responsibilities courts have, the critical services they provide to the people of Minnesota, or the important role they have in preserving public safety, economic stability, individual freedom and personal security. Courts are involved in more than just traffic tickets and criminal prosecution. While holding criminals accountable for their conduct and collecting fines and fees are important aspects of what courts do (last year courts processed over 193,000 criminal matters and collected almost $200 million that was paid out to cities, counties and the state), these are far from the only services provided.
The courts in Minnesota hear cases that involve people who need help at critical times in their lives involving some of the most important matters in their lives. If you are not directly involved with the courts, it is almost certain that you have a friend, relative or neighbor who is.
Three examples demonstrate the variety and urgency of the cases heard in courtrooms throughout Minnesota.
• An elderly man who lost a leg in an accident was unable to obtain recommended medical treatment without court intervention because the two companies that insured him could not agree which was responsible for payment of the expenses.
• A woman came to court for an order for protection after finding her husband’s journal that described his detailed plans and preparations to kill her and their children.
• A pre-teen girl involved in a protection proceeding because of the physical and emotional abuse inflicted by her mother wrote a letter to the judge describing the beatings, explaining that the whipping with the extension cord “hurt the most” and ended her letter by pleading: “HELP ME PLEASE.”
The court’s job is to make sure that these important matters are handled in a timely and responsible manner.
The Minnesota Constitution states that every person is entitled “to obtain justice freely and without purchase, completely and without denial, promptly and without delay.” The courts, as the third branch of state government, are charged with ensuring that this constitutional right of the people to timely access and impartial justice is honored.
Each year over 1.6 million cases are filed with the courts seeking justice. By discharging the Judicial Branch’s constitutional obligation, the courts protect the freedom, security, family and property of individuals, while supporting and promoting society’s interest in public safety, economic stability and social order.
In recent years the Judicial Branch has embraced technology to create efficiencies for the courts and for other justice system agencies so these important matters can be processed and heard in a reasonable time. The electronic filing of documents and the availability of court documents, calendars and other court related information over the Internet have improved access and reduced costs associated with court proceedings.
The expanded use of interactive video for court hearings, the development of remote interpreter services, and the creation of web-based staff training have reduced expenses so the courts can continue to provide meaningful and timely court proceedings.
The Judicial Branch Strategic Plan, first adopted over a decade ago, recognizes the need for the courts to do a better job at less cost, to be more efficient and more effective.
The courts have worked with other justice system agencies to improve the effectiveness of the services they provide. Problem-solving courts have been created to address the mental health, alcohol and substance abuse issues that frequently drive criminal behavior and contribute to family dysfunction.
Courts throughout Minnesota have implemented new approaches to the often difficult process of getting a divorce. Early court intervention in these matters has reduced the time, conflict and cost frequently associated with these proceedings.
To assist the increasing number of people who cannot afford to hire an attorney or choose to represent themselves in court proceedings, forms and informational brochures have been revised, assistance centers have been created in several courthouses, and a self-help website has been developed. These efforts go beyond the efficient disposition of cases and strive for better outcomes and a more satisfactory process.
Despite the challenges presented by an increasing demand for court services and multiple funding reductions, the people of Minnesota continue to receive high quality services from their courts. While most people may still want to avoid criminal prosecution, traffic tickets and divorce proceedings, there should be comfort in knowing that Minnesota’s courts are available and responsive if their freedom, family or property are ever threatened.