BEMIDJI-On a typical Monday morning, the first-floor courtroom in the Beltrami County Judicial Center is filled with people waiting to be heard.

The judge who presides over the first court dates of the week often hears about 100 cases between 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. Defendants held in the Beltrami County Jail go first, followed by those who are out of custody.

Some out-of-custody defendants sit through hours of guilty pleas, omnibus hearings and sentencings before it is their turn to stand in front of the judge. And on particularly busy days, morning court can bleed into the slot of the day reserved for arraignments.

Behind the scenes, the three Ninth Judicial District judges seated in Beltrami County do their best to make each hearing go smoothly. But the county's heavy caseload can be hard to stay on top of, especially as case filings increase each year.

"Judge (John) Melbye had over 100 cases on Monday, that means it's over 100 files to look at and read all the documents. I now have over 100 cases for my calendar on Monday, so it's 100 cases to look at and read," said Ninth District Judge Shari Schluchter, who is seated in Beltrami County. "Our folks deserve us to look at everything that's in the file and be prepared."

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

But a public safety budget bill recently signed by Gov. Mark Dayton will likely provide the three judges with some relief. The bill allocated enough money to hire two new judges, one in the state's Seventh Judicial District and one in its Ninth.

Caseloads skyrocket

The process of creating a new judgeship is lengthy and complicated. First, the state's judicial branch must calculate the "judge need" for each district. To do this, judicial branch employees multiply the number of cases filed each year by the amount of time a judge needs to resolve a specific type of case. That number is then divided by the amount of time a judge has in a given year.

According to preliminary numbers for the first quarter of 2017 provided by the Ninth District's Chief Judge Paul Benshoof, the district-which comprises 17 counties including Beltrami-needs 25.1 judges. The district has 23. The Ninth District county most in need of an additional judge is Beltrami; Benshoof said the county operates at a 0.8-judge deficit.

Melbye, Schluchter and Benshoof say the deficit takes a toll on nearly everyone who encounters the court system. The three judges must work long hours to complete all the necessary casework but, more important, Beltrami County citizens often feel the effects.

"When we have work that's almost the equivalent for four judges, clearly the three of us can't do everything as quickly or as timely as we would like," Benshoof said. "Some cases are getting delayed, some people are finding it harder to get their cases resolved as quickly as they should and that's ... a big concern."

Judges' workloads also grow each year. According to judicial branch data, case filings in Beltrami County increased by 17 percent from 2010 to 2016. During that time, major criminal case filings increased by 42 percent and child protection cases increased by 215 percent, a number Benshoof called "staggering." None of the judges are entirely sure why case filings-especially those regarding child abuse and neglect-continue to grow, but Benshoof said handling the increase is like being "at the other end of the hose."

"We don't control what comes through the door," Schluchter said. "We have to figure out how to best hand out justice for those who come through the door, and so we don't get to control our caseload. We don't get to control the type of cases, so we have to figure out how to best meet those needs."

Request funding

Based on data showing the need for a new judgeship, the branch's judicial council decided in January to ask the Minnesota Legislature for funding for two new judgeships as part of its biennial budget request. One judgeship will go to the Seventh Judicial District and one to the Ninth, Benshoof said.

Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court Lorie Gildea said the council-the policy-making arm of the judicial branch-worked for months to decide which requests to make. Along with funding for the two judgeships, which would cost about $1.7 million, the branch requested $42.06 million for judge and staff compensation, $3.378 million to fund treatment courts, $2.328 million to pay for mandated services and $1.968 million for cyber-security enhancements.

"We had a number of proposals that came forward, and that we discussed in detail, and we settled on what we believe to be a very modest request to address the challenges we're facing in the branch," Gildea said.

Dayton's judiciary funding recommendations closely corresponded to the judicial branch's request and Gildea said the governor supports the branch. In fact, Dayton vetoed a bill in early May that did not completely fulfill the judicial branch's request. The early version of the bill did fully fund two new judgeships, but would not have provided the requested funding for treatment courts and mandated services.

Dayton signed a new version of the bill Tuesday, prompting a positive statement from Gildea. The bill fully funds two new judgeships, provides the branch with about $1.98 million for mandated services and more than $3 million for treatment courts.

"While the budget bill signed into law ... does not address every challenge facing Minnesota's justice system, it will strengthen our court system and enhance public safety in the state," Gildea said in the statement. "This budget will help ensure our courts have the judges and staff we need to manage our caseload in an effective and timely manner."