by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona County lost a judge last Thursday, when the Minnesota Supreme Court ordered that a vacant judgeship be relocated from Winona to Rochester. With a limited number of judges in Southeast Minnesota and a growing population in Rochester — and more growth anticipated as a result of the Mayo Clinic’s Destination Medical Center (DMC) project — Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea decided that relocating the judgeship was best for the state and for Southeast Minnesota.
In comments leading up to the Gildea’s decision, Winona County District Court Judge Mary Leahy, Representative Gene Pelowski, and Senator Jeremy Miller said that the move would only shift the problem from Olmsted County to Winona County. The transfer will leave Winona County with a shortage of judges to decide a steady load of important cases; Southeast Minnesota’s Third Judicial District will help mitigate that shortage by sending visiting judges to preside over some Winona County cases. Despite that, Winona County leaders said the move will delay justice, increase costs for local taxpayers, and make it harder to continue proactive criminal justice programs.
The vacant seat belonged to Judge Jeffrey Thompson, who retired from the Winona County bench on April 13. He was one of three full-time judges in Winona County. Now, just two judges will be chambered in Winona: Judge Leahy and Judge Nancy Buytendorp. The judges of the Third Judicial District have, for years, talked about transferring a judge to Olmsted County, where a longstanding shortage of judges is projected to get worse as DMC swells Rochester’s population. Supporters of the move saw Thompson’s retirement as their opportunity.
It was not just Winona County opposing the move. Criminal justice officials from Wabasha, Houston, and Fillmore counties all spoke out against it, as well, and said they would face negative ripple effects. In comments filed before Gilidea’s decision, Fillmore County Attorney Brett Corson said the move would force Fillmore County’s lone judge to spend more of his valuable time behind a steering wheel to make up for the shortage in Winona. “The current distribution and allocation of judges is not perfect, but it is the best allocation based on current assets and workload,” he wrote. At a meeting of district judges in January, a Steele County judge told her colleagues that, to some Southeast Minnesotans, this move would embody the worst perception of DMC: “the rich getting richer and everyone else paying for it.” At that meeting, Third Judicial District Chief Judge Jodi Williamson took a straw poll of all of the judges in Southeast Minnesota: to move or not to move. It was an 11-11 tie.
However, it was up to the chief judge alone to make a recommendation to the Supreme Court. Williamson asked the Supreme Court to move Thomspon’s seat. In her recommendation to Gildea in February, Williamson said she had lost sleep over the decision, but that ultimately relocating the judgeship was the best option for the future of Southeast Minnesota as a whole. “Now is the time to use this window of opportunity to move to a long-term solution,” Williamson wrote.
In an unusual step, the Supreme Court held a public comment period before making its decision. Local officials and citizens alike urged the Supreme Court not to support the move. “Please help Winona keep three judges in town,” Naomi Theye asked the Supreme Court. “Our community cannot afford to lose a judge’s seat,” Jay Symopoulos wrote. “Re-chambering one of Winona County’s judges in Olmsted County would jeopardize successful early intervention and diversionary programs like adult drug court, create a backlog of court cases, increase jail populations, lead to higher costs for taxpayers, and hinder the county’s ability to resolve court matters effectively and rapidly,” Miller and Pelowski stated in a joint letter.
Many commenters said that Winona County Drug Court — which has successfully reformed nonviolent drug offenders through addiction treatment and regular sobriety checks — would suffer if Winona County lost its third judge. Drug court graduates have become spokespeople, warning local youth about the dangers of drug abuse and offering users hope that recovery is possible. In a letter, Winona County Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention Program Coordinator Phil Huerta told the Supreme Court, “I believe it is a necessity to retain three district judges in Winona County to continue building our effective prevention activities and maintain much needed accountability for our drug court participants, who are now contributing greatly to our community.” Public Defender’s Office Managing Attorney Michael Kuehn told the Supreme Court, “It is difficult to see … how Winona County can effectively maintain its drug court when the county’s caseload is already greater than two judges can realistically handle.”
Olmsted County wants to properly staff its drug court, too, Olmsted County Attorney Mark A. Ostrem wrote in a letter to the Supreme Court. “From my first day in office I have championed a treatment court for Olmsted County. It took 10 years to come to fruition, while many counties, including Winona, leap-frogged our effort. Why? Because we did not have the judicial resources in Olmsted County to make it happen.” Ostrem said that Olmsted County has been forced to seriously limit the number of participants in its drug court because of the lack of judges’ time.
The Supreme Court ordered Williamson to respond to Winonans’ concerns. Williamson said the concerns were unfounded. “There is no merit to the argument a decrease in Winona judgeships could negatively impact the continued operation of Winona County’s treatment court program …” she wrote. “There is no merit to the argument that a decrease in Winona judgeships could negatively impact the efficient and effective management of court dockets and judicial caseloads,” she added. Winona County’s two full-time judges will get enough help from visiting judges to handle the caseloads, and other counties have been able to maintain drug courts despite being under-judged. If Winona’s bench is dedicated, it can, too, she stated. “Under the leadership of Judge Nancy Buytendorp, I see no reason why the Winona County Treatment Court would not continue to flourish, regardless of how many judges are chambered in Winona County,” Williamson wrote.
This scramble over limited judicial resources comes as the DMC project is slated to receive $585 million in public subsidies for private development in Rochester. At the judges’ meeting in January, several judges brought up the possibility of the legislature allocating funding for a new judgeship in Southeast Minnesota. Other judges pointed out that the Third Judicial District is not even on the Supreme Court’s shortlist of districts most in need of new judgeships and was scolded in the past for trying to jump its place in line.
“We are just as important as Rochester,” Winonan LaVerne Olson wrote in his letter to the Supreme Court. “It has been suggested that perhaps some of the Destination Mayo money [could] be used to hire another judge. This should be carefully considered before stripping coverage from another area.”
However, Williamson wrote in her reply to Gildea, “As the chief judge of the district, I need to take the long view of our district as it continues to grow and not rely on the state to allocate a ‘new judge’ through legislation.”
“I am asking the Supreme Court to trust the structure of the leadership provided by the district chief judges to know the needs of their respective district. I personally believe that the approval of this transfer is in the best interest of the district as a whole,” Williamson continued.
Ultimately, Gildea agreed with Williamson. The chief justice pointed in particular to Williamson’s pledge that the district would try to provide Winona County and other counties with the same visiting judge, not a rotating cast of visiting judges, to provide consistency in important cases. Under Williamson’s proposed equalization order — which spells out how counties will give and receive visiting judges’ time — Winona County would receive 67 days of Fillmore County District Judge Matthew Opat’s time in the coming fiscal year, 62 days of Olmsted County judges’ time, and 36 days of service from a retired, senior judge.
Gildea added, “We are committed to ensuring the adequate delivery of judicial resources to Winona County and will take appropriate action if required in the future.”
“I am disappointed with the decision,” Judge Buytendorp stated on Friday. “With that, however, Judge Leahy and I will work with the district to make sure that Winona County receives the required judicial resources. Also, we will work even harder to make sure that the people of Winona County have timely access to justice.”
“Winona County’s justice partners have a long history of working together to ensure justice is served in a timely and efficient manner. Judge Buytendorp and I will move heaven and earth to make sure this continues for the people of Winona County,” Leahy stated.