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Court cuts hit small counties hardest

ST. PAUL - More state budget cuts will mean longer waits for cases to go through Minnesota's court system and small counties will be hardest hit, judicial leaders say.

For years, courts in the least-populated counties have received more state funding per capita than larger counties. But on Thursday, State Court Administrator Sue Dosal told the Senate Judiciary Budget Division that is ending.

She said the courts can no longer afford to give extra money to small counties.

That could mean some counties' court offices would be open only when a judge is there. In many parts of the state, there often is no judge in a county.

The change, made because the number of court employees is shrinking, will be phased in over three years, Dosal said.

"Fewer people means less services," she said. "Delays and backlogs already are building across the state."

Gov. Tim Pawlenty recommends that the courts be cut $13.7 million as he tries to plug a $1.2 billion state budget deficit.

Legislative leaders expect to begin looking at what to cut in many budget areas as early as next week, but committee Chairman Leo Foley, DFL-Coon Rapids, said he does not want to move backward to a time when case backlogs were bigger than in recent years.

Dosal said a cut the size Pawlenty wants would result in eliminating 77 positions, on top of 250 that have been cut recently. She said that would leave the court staff 13 percent smaller than needed.

It means Minnesotans with cases in courts throughout Minnesota will experience much longer waits. For instance, Judge David Knutson of Dakota County said that in some areas judges are now scheduling simple divorces for September.

Rural judges already use television connections to remotely hold some hearings so judges do not have to travel.

Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley, asked if the Appeals Court needs to continue traveling around the state to hear cases.

Chief Judge Edward Toussaint said state law requires an appeals case to be heard in the area where it was in District Court so people involved can attend.

Toussaint said that before the Legislature increased the number of Appeals Court judges from 16 to 19 in 2007, the court had 741 cases on its waiting list. That number dwindled to 198 this month, but it is on its way back to the 2007 level, he warned.