On June 20, Republicans filed a suit in the Minnesota Supreme Court, asking the state’s highest court to order a complete halt to state spending if no budget deal is reached by June 30. The governor and the attorney general and the judiciary branch had previously filed various petitions in Ramsey County District Court, asking Judge Kathleen Gearin to declare certain services as essential, and to order that the state continue these services.
What will happen on July 1? No one knows for sure. The lack of a budget affects state functions from public health to highways, from contracts to criminal prosecutions. Today I spent some time trying to track the impact of a shutdown on the court system. Here’s what I found:
On July 1, the police could arrest Joe Schmoe for speeding or for dealing drugs or for murder. They could book him into a jail and the prosecutor could prepare charges. And then they could have nowhere to go.
Judges and court clerks are state employees, so they will be out of work on July 1, if there’s no budget agreement or court order for continuation of essential services. County public defenders across the state got their lay-off notices last week, along with their offices’ investigators and all other employees. Prosecutors and police are county employees, so they could continue to work.
Theoretically, says Kevin Kajer, executive director of state board of public defense, “you’d have folks going into the judicial system, but nobody going out the other end.”
People who are arrested can only be held for a few days without being charged and appearing before a judge. Once they appear in front of a judge, the speedy trial provisions of the constitution kick in, as does the right to be represented by an attorney. None of this works, unless judges and public defenders and court employees are there to play their part in the system.
Cliff Poehler, a Hennepin County public defender for 24 years, says the looming shutdown is “sort of like spilling something on the floor – how far is this stain going to spread?” He’s been around for the previous shutdowns, and said that they were managed, not like this one. “If the courts aren’t open,” he said, “this will be a disaster of epic proportions.”
“You can’t hold a person in jail forever – you have to charge them, and get them a lawyer,” Poehler said. “They have a right to speedy trial, so judges will have to let all of these people go pending the time when they can get lawyers.”
Hennepin County Administrator Richard Johnson said that public defenders offices are the only Hennepin County employees who have received layoff notices, because these office have a combination of state and county funding. Nonetheless, he said “We are looking at what contracts would be affected,” and identifying a list of critical services within the county. Everything, he said, is dependent on what the courts decide about the terms of the shutdown. An internal memo to county employees said, in part:
With the possibility for a State shutdown nearing, a leadership team of county executives is meeting on an ongoing basis to determine the impacts a shutdown would have on county services and operations. Each department has begun to identify potential funding, operational, vendor and employee issues.
We provide a number of services which are funded solely by state revenue or partially by state revenue. As a result, we need to determine which of these services may be considered essential or critical and which we will be directed to continue to provide. This will be determined by a legal process which has been initiated today with a filing by the state attorney general in Ramsey District Court. How long this process will take and what other legal actions may occur is unknown.
We are compiling information to assemble a better picture of Hennepin County’s situation and to develop a systematic approach for the County. We are in consultation with the state and other counties in the metro area. We have scheduled meetings with the county board over the next two weeks to advise members and receive direction going forward.
Until we learn the magnitude of the potential shutdown, we won’t know to what extent our services and employees will be impacted.
At the time of the last Minnesota government shutdown in 2005, recalled Johnson, “there were two things that do not exist today. They had agreed to a lights-on bill, so certain things would continue. And a number of departmental budgets had already been approved. Neither of those things exist this time around.”
“In 2005,” said Kajer, “the judiciary was already funded. The legislature and governor had agreed to a spending bill for public safety and the judiciary, so that entire shutdown was avoided.
“In 2001, we were part of a potential shutdown, but that got averted at the last day or two when the legislature and governor came to an agreement on the funding. In that instance, there was a court order for some public defense as a core service. So we would have remained open.”
“The thing that really vexes me,” said Poehler, “is that this could all be avoided, if the richest two percent among us would agree to pay their fair share of taxes. Those families making $350,000 a year and up, if they just paid the same ratio that the average person pays, we’d have a deal.” But, he said, it’s not really the two percent who are holding up the budget deal. “I believe the people who are rich in this state want everybody to be prosperous, they want the state to be prosperous.”
For Poehler, the solution is clear: “I know there’s some thinking Republicans in the legislature. We want them to come forward.”