New chief justice says court funding is concern

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota’s new chief justice, Lorie Skjerven Gildea, said Tuesday that her top priority will be securing enough money for a judicial system that’s slowing down due to budget cuts that have left the courts short-staffed.

“Ensuring adequate funding for the judiciary is the No. 1 priority,” Gildea said in an interview with The Associated Press, one day after she was ceremonially sworn in as Minnesota’s 22nd chief justice.

Gildea, 48, actually took the post effective July 1, replacing Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, who returned to private practice after battling mostly successfully to protect the courts from threatened deep budget cuts.

But Minnesota’s courts have kept 250 staff positions unfilled because of tight funding. And when judges retire, which happens about 20 times a year, their seats typically are left empty for six to eight months to save money. All that is slowing down the system, she said.

Gildea also said she’ll speak out against turning Minnesota judicial races into the kind of “big money partisan battles” seen in neighboring Wisconsin and other states.

Just because the U.S. Supreme Court recently cleared the way for Minnesota judicial candidates to be outspoken on issues and for political parties to get involved doesn’t mean they should do so, she said.

“I’m very concerned that the trust and confidence that people have in the Minnesota judiciary will be undermined by those who seek to insert partisan politics into our selection process,” Gildea said.

Yet she said she’d leave it to the people to decide whether to adopt any specific plans for keeping politics out of the courts.

“I don’t think it’s up to judges to tell the people of Minnesota how to pick their judges,” she said. “I do think it’s up to judges to educate the people about what the role of a judge is and to explain why we don’t want partisan politics involved in judicial selections.”

When Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced in May that he was elevating Gildea from associate justice to chief justice, Pawlenty stressed that he valued judicial restraint.

But Gildea, who is one of four Pawlenty appointees on the seven-member court, firmly resisted discussing her judicial philosophy or the current tilt of the court.

“I don’t get into labels. I don’t think that’s productive,” she said.

Gildea said the seven justices form “a very collegial, collaborative court,” and that they’re respectful of each other’s opinions, even when they disagree.

Peter Knapp, a court watcher and professor at the William Mitchell College of Law, said the Minnesota Supreme Court has been conservative when it comes to judicial restraint, but it hasn’t been ideological, and that likely won’t change.

“This is a court that has exercised a tremendous amount of judicial restraint, and Chief Justice Gildea is certainly not alone in that, but she’s not an exception,” Knapp said.

Knapp also pointed out that it’s been 12 years since a justice picked by a Democratic governor has sat on the high court. Over the last 30 years, he added, the state has had only four justices appointed by a Democrat, out of about 20 appointments over that period.

Gildea insisted she’s open-minded about allowing news cameras in the state’s trial courts, but said victim and witness advocates have raised “very serious, heartfelt concerns.”

After news organizations petitioned for more access, the Supreme Court directed a rules committee to develop a pilot project to test the impact of allowing cameras. Its work has been slowed by discussions over how to design a study to measure any adverse effects, and it has not been settled who will pay for the project.

The key points, Gildea said, are that the pilot project will happen and the study will be meaningful and workable. The Supreme Court will then look at the results and decide how to proceed, she said.

Like several of her fellow justices, Gildea has rural roots, and she said their smaller-town backgrounds contribute to the cordial relationships on the court. She grew up in the northwestern Minnesota town of Plummer and went to the University of Minnesota-Morris. Her law school class at Georgetown was more than double the population of Plummer, she said.

“Growing up in a small place, you learn the value of working together,” she said.