Chief Justice delivers 2021 State of the Judiciary address
Posted: Thursday, June 24, 2021
Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea has delivered the annual State of the Judiciary address. The speech was delivered to viewers on Thursday, June 24, as a part of the remote Minnesota State Bar Association annual convention. The text of her speech is below.
2021 MSBA Annual Convention - State of the Judiciary
Good afternoon, members of the Minnesota bar. It is an honor to be with you today. Thank you for the invitation to share the State of the Judiciary.
Before I get too far into my remarks, I want to take this opportunity to thank Dyan Ebert for her outstanding service as MSBA President over the past year.
Dyan has provided a steady hand and strong leadership for the state bar during a year full of challenges, and we are forever grateful for her service.
And let me be among the first to officially congratulate Jennifer Thompson on her new role. Jennifer has held many leadership positions in our state’s legal community, and I know she will be an excellent partner for our courts while serving as the bar's next president.
Jennifer, I’m looking forward to working closely with you in the year ahead. Thank you for taking on this new challenge.
As I come before the state bar today, I am proud to report that—despite a year-and-a-half of daunting challenges—the state of Minnesota’s judiciary remains strong.
Thanks to the hard work, dedication, and innovation of our judicial officers and court staff, we have maintained an open door to justice in our state during a once-in-a-century public health crisis.
Working hand-in-hand with our state’s attorneys and justice partners, we have remained resilient, and we have successfully navigated the trials of the past year. Working together, we have ensured that Minnesotans have always had a safe place to protect their rights and resolve their disputes, and we have fulfilled our Constitutional mission each and every day of this pandemic.
As we look ahead, our justice system is prepared to emerge from the pandemic more unified than ever before. And our judiciary is committed to using the lessons we’ve learned and successes we’ve achieved during this crisis to build an even stronger justice system.
During my remarks today, I’m going to highlight some of those key lessons we’ve learned during this time of crisis and change. And I’m going to share with you how our courts plan to leverage those lessons as we continue to emerge from this pandemic.
One of the most important lessons we learned during the pandemic is how we can use online court hearings to increase access to justice in our state.
Over the past year, roughly 80 percent of all court hearings in the state have been held in online courtrooms. If you look just at this calendar year, since the start of 2021, 93 percent of all district court hearings have been held online.
At the appellate level, all of our oral arguments have been held online since April 2020. But I’m pleased to report that our Court is going to hold our first in-person oral argument, in over a year, in August, and we plan to resume a normal schedule of in-person arguments beginning in September.
By and large, our justice system had a remarkably successful transition to this world of online hearings. Sure, we’ve had our hiccups—from occasional technology errors, to issues around remote hearing decorum—but there can be no question about the vital role remote hearings have played in our pandemic response.
While this extensive use of remote hearings resulted from a public health emergency, we shouldn’t ignore the very real and valuable lessons we’ve learned about how these technologies can be used.
Not only have these technologies allowed us to hear cases safely and effectively throughout the pandemic, but we have also seen our court users and stakeholders embrace the convenience and efficiency of online hearings.
Throughout the pandemic, we have used surveys, focus groups, and other methods to gather feedback from court participants about the use of remote hearings. We've gathered input from judges, court staff, attorneys, justice partners, and the litigants who seek justice in our courts through this process.
Among each group we’ve heard from during the pandemic, two common themes emerged.
First, the belief that conducting court hearings online serves to increase access to justice. Second, we heard strong support for the idea that we should continue to conduct at least some portion of court hearings online even after the pandemic. This is especially true when we asked about uncontested hearings—hearings where there is no evidence being presented or testimony taken.
Attorneys gave several reasons why they prefer to conduct uncontested hearings remotely. Of course, health and safety were primary concerns during the pandemic. But attorneys also cited reduced travel time and costs, more reliable scheduling and hearing start times, and the fact that remote hearings make it easier for their clients to make their court appearances.
Law enforcement and corrections agencies have advocated for the continued use of remote hearings, as they reduce the costs and security concerns related to transporting incarcerated individuals to court.
Victim advocate groups reported that victims feel safer and more empowered to participate in court hearings remotely and would like to see the ability to participate in court hearings remotely continue after the pandemic.
In surveys of litigants, we heard a strong preference for attending court hearings remotely. Many litigants said they prefer remote hearings because they reduce travel time and costs, and they are easier to attend without taking as much time off from work or finding childcare.
Given feedback like this, it’s no wonder that a significant majority of litigants we surveyed believe the Judicial Branch should continue to conduct hearings remotely after the pandemic is over.
Based on all of the positive feedback and input we’ve received related to the use of remote hearings during the pandemic, we are presently undertaking a statewide effort to determine what role remote hearings should play in our courts going forward.
Of course, no one is suggesting that we’ll continue to conduct 90 percent of our hearings online. We’re already beginning the process of gradually increasing in-person trials and hearings across the state. Our goal needs to be finding the right balance—determining what matters are best handled in the courtroom, and where we can offer increased flexibility and convenience through remote hearings.
Throughout the pandemic, we’ve had a small team of judges and court administrators strategizing about our post-pandemic future. That Workgroup, which we’ve affectionately dubbed the “Other Side” Workgroup, just finished holding 50
listening sessions with judges, court staff, attorneys, and court users across the state. Those listening sessions were focused specifically on how stakeholders believe we should strike that right balance.
Tomorrow afternoon, as part of the conference agenda, you will have the opportunity to hear directly from members of the Other Side Workgroup about their work and what they’ve heard as part of these listening sessions. And you’ll be hearing from them at a really crucial time.
Next month, the Other Side Workgroup is scheduled to present its recommendations regarding the future of remote hearings to the Minnesota Judicial Council. The Judicial Council will then use the recommendations to develop a roadmap and guidelines around the statewide use of remote hearings in our courts.
Ultimately, the lessons we have learned about the value and effectiveness of remote hearings has the potential to have a positive and lasting impact on the way we deliver justice in Minnesota. Through the strategic use of remote hearings, I believe we can increase access to justice and create a more efficient and user-friendly court experience.
I thank the bar and our justice partners for all of your efforts to support the transition to online courtrooms during the pandemic. I know that this transition wasn’t always easy, and that it was a steep learning curve for all of us. I also know that much of our success is owed to the creativity and flexibility all of you exhibited in translating the practice of law into this new environment.
Even beyond our use of remote hearings, our response to the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the meaningful way technological innovations can benefit our justice system and court users.
In the decade preceding the pandemic, our court system had gone through a major technological transformation. The innovations we developed during that time played a fundamental role in our ability to deliver justice during this crisis. Just imagine what the past year would have looked like without all of the electronic tools we have today.
As the pandemic set in, we saw court users embrace the online services offered by our courts. For example, usage of our Guide & File system, which helps self-represented litigants complete and file common court forms online, surged during the pandemic.
We knew that many people were looking for ways to conduct more and more of their business online during the pandemic. But even as the pandemic subsides, I think we will see customers continuing to prefer the ease and convenience of these online services, and I believe our justice system needs to be ready to meet those evolving customer expectations.
Even during the pandemic, the Minnesota Judicial Branch has continued to focus on innovation and building new technologies.
Last year, we introduced Hearing eReminders, which allow parties in eligible case types to receive text or email reminders of their upcoming hearings.
This past April, we launched a new online version of the statewide Public Defender application, allowing court users to complete and submit a request for a public defender from a home computer, smartphone, or tablet.
Most notably, earlier this year, we finally reached one of the Branch's long-term goals: providing the public with remote online access to district court case documents.
After years of coming before the MSBA and telling you that online access to district court documents was coming in the future, no one in the state was happier to see the first phase of this project finally come to fruition than me.
We officially launched Minnesota Court Records Online—or MCRO—on March 17 of this year. It was clear from the start that there was much pent-up demand for this level of record access. The day we launched MCRO, more than 3,700 users from across the country downloaded more than 10,000 case documents using the application. Three months in, we continue to receive positive feedback about the usability and functionality of this new tool.
Right now, we’re working on the second phase of MCRO development. In Phase 2, we plan to add more functionality, including the ability to search for cases by a person’s name, business name, and attorney name or bar number, plus case number and citation number. A redesigned Register of Actions, with case information including case events, document index numbers, hearings, parties, and financial information, will also be available. The goal is to pilot the Phase 2 development later in 2021.
In the third and final phase, coming next year, we will add judgment search and calendar search functionality.
Once this third and final phase is complete, we also plan to implement an access fee. The current plan is to allow users to view the first page of documents as a preview, and then users would have the option of paying an access fee to view subsequent pages and download or print entire documents. The planned fee will be per document, and users will be charged the same amount as they would when purchasing a document at a courthouse. That fee is currently $8 and is set by state statute. As with paper copies, the revenue from that fee goes to the state General Fund.
I’m proud to say that MCRO was approved, developed, and launched all during the COVID-19 pandemic, which I think is a great credit to the judges and court staff involved in this important effort. The launch of MCRO and its continued development is a huge step forward in increasing access, transparency, and convenience in our court system. I’m really grateful to our entire project team for being part of this successful rollout.
Each of these new tools and innovations reflects our court system's commitment to using technology to increase access to justice, and to make our courts more customer-focused. And while we're extremely proud of how far we've come in the past decade, we know that rapidly evolving technology means we need to continue to adapt and grow.
Right now, we have a statewide project team building a long-term roadmap for enhancing and expanding our online services. This includes not only thinking about how we can improve our website and existing electronic tools but looking ahead to the new types of innovations and technologies our courts may employ in the future.
I look forward to sharing more about this work with the bar in the future.
Now, not every lesson we learned during the pandemic had to do with online hearings and new technologies. We already knew, of course, how important all of you—Minnesota attorneys—are to the cause of justice, but we were reminded again of the essential role our justice system plays during times of crisis, especially as so many Minnesotans have been forced to deal with the economic and societal impacts of this pandemic.
Our statewide Self-Help Center had its highest call volume ever in 2020, fielding more than 30,000 calls from Minnesotans working to resolve legal issues. And I know that our state’s civil legal aid organizations saw huge increases in requests for support in the past year-and-a-half, as well.
Across our justice system, attorneys and organizations have been stepping up to meet the needs of Minnesotans during this challenging time.
One excellent example is Lawyers Step Up for Minnesota, which is a joint venture of the MSBA, the courts, and civil legal aid.
This new pro bono campaign was launched in response to increasing legal needs caused by the pandemic. This effort will recognize lawyers who are already volunteering with civil legal aid, as well as encourage new volunteers to come forward.
If you haven't already, I would encourage you to visit LawyersStepUpMN.org to learn more about this important effort. From there, you can express interest in taking a case in one of the areas most impacted by the pandemic: family, housing, or consumer law. You will answer a few short questions and will be matched with a legal aid organization. Training will be included if you need it.
If you’ve never done pro bono work before, this is the perfect opportunity. At the end of this effort, we will host a special event in early 2022 to recognize all of the attorneys who "step up" as part of this initiative. I hope to see many of you there.
Another example of how our justice system is stepping up to meet the increased need for legal services is the Legal Paraprofessional Pilot Project, which officially launched on March 1.
This two-year, statewide Pilot Project allows approved legal paraprofessionals to represent and advise clients in select housing and family matters with oversight by a licensed Minnesota attorney. The Project is intended to increase access to legal representation in civil case types where parties are disproportionately unrepresented.
We have set up a page on the Judicial Branch website with an application and instructions on how to participate in the Pilot. You can see the URL here on the screen.
The list of legal paraprofessionals approved to serve under the Pilot is growing and includes professionals from across the state.
If you know a paraprofessional in your organization who might be a good candidate for this Pilot, please encourage him or her to apply. We know the need for civil legal services is increasing, especially right now as many Minnesotans are involved in landlord/tenant disputes that have been impacted by the eviction moratorium.
I’m also happy to share that Minnesota Lawyers Mutual supports this Program, and during the Pilot they have agreed to extend coverage to qualified paraprofessionals employed by a supervising attorney who is insured by MLM. Be sure to check out the Minnesota Lawyers Mutual website for more details.
At the same time we recognize how our profession is helping to meet the needs of Minnesotans struggling during the pandemic, we can't ignore the very real challenges and stresses faced by our friends and colleagues inside the legal community.
I’m sure many of you will remember the 2017 ABA study that found devastating levels of mental and chemical health issues among our nation’s attorneys—particularly among those in their first 10 years of practice. You may also remember the call-to-action event the Supreme Court hosted in 2019 to help respond to that study’s findings.
I believe the challenges to attorney well-being have only increased since then, especially given the stress and uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
One of the primary ways our state helps to support attorney well-being is through grants provided to Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. Each year, Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers provides support to hundreds of Minnesota attorneys struggling with addiction, depression, anxiety, or other challenges.
Funding for Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers comes through the Supreme Court’s Lawyers Assistance Program, which, in turn, is funded by your annual lawyer registration fees.
In order to ensure Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers can continue to meet the needs of our state's attorneys, the Supreme Court recently approved a modest increase to the lawyer registration fee.
This October, the fee will go up by 3.1 percent. This will be the first fee increase in more than a decade, and it will cost those of you paying the highest registration fees about $8 a year. Every dollar of this increase will go toward Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.
The Supreme Court also approved 3 percent fee increases in each of the next two years as well—2022 and 2023—with those fee increases going to support the vital work of the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility.
Again, it’s been a long time since these fees have been raised. I hope you’ll view these modest increases as worthwhile investments in lawyer well-being and professional responsibility.
Speaking of the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility, I wanted to take this opportunity to ask for the Bar’s help in addressing a growing issue in our legal community.
During the pandemic, we witnessed the tragic loss of attorneys, many in solo practices, who did not have a plan in place to address their death or disability.
When this happens, the task falls to loved ones already overwhelmed with grief, or colleagues or friends who may step forward but are unsure what to do to close down another’s practice. When no one steps in, the Court appoints the Director of the OLPR as trustee.
While the public health crisis of the past year brought this issue into sharp focus, it was an issue that existed before the pandemic and will continue well beyond the pandemic, as we see an aging Bar and high numbers of solo or small practitioners throughout the state.
I encourage the Bar step up to tackle this issue, perhaps through the development of a list of volunteer attorneys willing to take on these types of cases, or a handbook on succession planning that attorneys could use to plan for these unexpected events.
The Bar’s work in this area could go a long way to reduce the burden on family members, peers, and the court who need to step in when there is no succession plan.
Turning back to the lessons we’ve learned in the past year, I want to talk about some of the ways we are working to strengthen public trust and confidence in our courts.
This was a year when the eyes of the entire world were focused on Minnesota’s justice system. And when we were reminded of our shared obligation to earn that trust by ensuring the fairness, equity, and transparency of our judiciary.
An essential part of maintaining the public's trust and confidence is keeping court proceedings open and accessible. This has proved challenging during the past year, as we were forced to limit access to our court facilities to protect public safety.
Thankfully, technology allowed us to keep a window to our courts open even when access to our court facilities was limited.
For example, this spring, cameras, and livestreaming technology were used to provide public access to one of the most high-profile trials in our state's history.
This was an unprecedented decision in our state. Historically, as all of you know, Minnesota has taken a cautious approach to the use of audio and video recording devices in district courts. Now, for the first time, Minnesotans were able to watch on TV and online gavel-to-gavel coverage of a criminal trial in state court.
I have seen it estimated that some 23 million people watched at least part of this livestreamed trial.
While the decision to allow camera coverage of this trial was based on the unprecedented public health restrictions in place during the pandemic, it would be a mistake for us not to reflect on the lessons learned and experiences gained through this process.
To that end, last week, the Supreme Court issued an order that directs the Advisory Committee for the Rules of Criminal Procedure to once again consider whether we should modify or expand the current requirements for audio and video coverage of criminal proceedings in Minnesota.
We hope the Committee will use the lessons we’ve learned not only during the pandemic, but also in the five years since we last modified these rules, to guide their recommendations. We’ve asked them to file their recommendations with the Court by July 1, 2022.
Public interest in and access to judicial proceedings is vital to the fair, open, and impartial administration of justice. I hope the Bar and our entire justice system will be active in these discussions and will keep an open mind as we once again explore this important issue.
While access and transparency are crucial ways we ensure public trust and confidence in our courts, it is equally important that we continue striving toward our goals of fairness, equity, and equality.
Over the past two years, the Judicial Branch’s Committee for Equality and Justice has done outstanding work in support of those important ideals.
As part of its most recent strategic plan, the CEJ developed new tools to help educate jurors about implicit or unconscious bias, helped support expanded community outreach by our courts, and developed recommendations and strategies for increasing diversity in our Judicial Branch workforce.
The Committee also began longer-term efforts to help ensure that the racial composition of our juries reflects the diversity of our state, and to develop recommendations to address disparities found in a recent report on probation revocations by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission. The Committee’s work on those two issues, along with a host of other important initiatives, will continue as part of the CEJ's next two-year strategic plan. That plan was just approved by the Judicial Council last week.
Earning the public’s trust and confidence remains among the highest priorities of our court system, and a foundational part of our work at the Judicial Branch. Through the leadership of our statewide Committee for Equality and Justice, and the partnership of our entire justice community, we will continue striving every day to promote a more fair and equitable system of justice in Minnesota.
The final lesson I’m going to share today as I close my remarks is one that I believe all Minnesotans should take great comfort in.
Over the past year-and-a-half, we have learned just how strong and resilient our justice system can be in the face of crisis. Through a combination of hard work, technological innovation, and a commitment to our Constitutional mission, we kept the door to justice open in Minnesota.
And our commitment to providing equal access to justice has never faltered.
I am confident that we will emerge from this pandemic stronger than ever, armed with a year-and-a-half of important lessons that will help us build a better future for the justice system in Minnesota.
On behalf of the judges and staff of the Minnesota Judicial Branch, I want to thank the bar and all of our justice system allies for your incredible partnership and resilience during this time of challenges and crisis. I look forward to working with you in the weeks, months, and days ahead as we continue to provide a system of justice worthy of this great state and its people.
Thank you for listening and take care.