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Judicial branch initiative increases staffing levels in small counties

BEMIDJI — Staff in Minnesota’s Ninth Judicial District will soon handle jury selection for the entire state, thanks to a new judicial branch initiative.

The statewide project began as an attempt to address personnel levels in some of the state’s smallest counties, where there often is not enough work to justify multiple full-time court administration staff. The judicial branch believed that by consolidating certain court-related jobs and basing those who performed them in smaller counties, it could increase the number of staff at those courthouses.

“The issues come up in the littlest counties like Kittson, Marshall, Lake of the Woods, Norman,” said Ninth Judicial District Administrator Paul Maatz. “Over the years we’ve had to basically cancel positions because there wasn’t enough work in the county or enough people.”

Each county — including the smallest in the district — used to have a court administrator and several staff, Maatz said. Court administration staff are responsible for a range of duties, and work on-site in order to help customers.

But because some small counties didn’t have enough of a workload to justify multiple full-time court administration staff, positions were eliminated.

“We had at least a couple of counties that only had one staff person,” Maatz said. “If that person has to be gone, is called away, whatever, then there’s no coverage. And because our counties, they’re all generally far apart, getting coverage for them can be a real issue.”

Before the initiative, jury qualification was handled by each individual county. Before potential jurors are summoned for a trial they must fill out certain forms to determine whether they’re qualified. Staff throughout the state then process those forms. As part of the new program, six people will qualify jurors for the whole state.

Once responsibility for jury qualification is consolidated, staff members will be placed in Red Lake County, Kittson County and Lake of the Woods County. Other staff will work remotely.

Similar shifts are happening in other districts as well. The Fifth Judicial District will process all appeals and the Eighth Judicial District will handle all child support orders.

Minnesota’s Ninth Judicial District includes Beltrami, Cass and Clearwater counties.

“Every district was having the same problem keeping enough staffing in the tiniest counties,” Maatz said. “It was really a whole-branch effort to get this all to happen.”

Jury Supervisor Aimee Goggleye said that after Hennepin County transitions to the system the first week of September, the shift will be nearly complete.

Members of the public may not notice a dramatic shift. But Maatz believes the changes will still benefit members of the public.

“The people of the county...expect that if they want to make a filing or get a copy of something or pay a fine, something like that, they would like to do it in their own county” Maatz said. “The courthouse is the people’s house.”

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