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The Quiet Third Branch of Government

How much do you know about our court system? Many often pass by the courthouse in their town, yet know little about what goes on inside unless they’ve been sued, summoned to a criminal case, or called to serve on a jury. The courts usually don’t make a lot of daily headlines in the media, unlike the other two branches, the legislative and executive.

Our state constitution, much like the federal constitution, establishes three branches of government for our state: the legislative branch, consisting of state senators and representatives; the executive branch, consisting of the Governor and the various state departments that operate under his direction; and the judicial branch, consisting of the courts of this state.

Our state has three levels of courts. The District Court is the trial court level and is the first step of the judicial process. Each county has a District Court housed in the local courthouse, which is a member of a larger group of judicial districts. Minnesota has ten judicial districts, formed out of the 87 counties of Minnesota. Some judicial districts containing large populations, such as those in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties, consist of only those counties. Other judicial districts, such as those in the northern part of the state, are formed out of numerous counties comprising a large geographic area with relatively low population.

Our area is contained in the Seventh Judicial District, which is a large area comprised of Clay, Becker, Otter Tail, Wadena, Todd, Morrison, Douglas, Stearns, Benton, and Mille Lacs counties.

There are 289 District Court judges authorized in Minnesota. A few of the positions are currently vacant but will eventually be filled. Applicants for the judicial vacancies are attorneys screened by a commission of attorneys and lay members of the public. The candidates’ backgrounds, educations, and experiences are evaluated on their merits and finalists are recommended for interview and final approval of the Governor.

The second level of the state courts is the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals is based in St. Paul but often sits in different county courthouses to hear cases throughout the state. The Court of Appeals sits in groups of three judges per case. There are currently a total of 19 judges on the Court of Appeals.

The third level of the Minnesota judicial system is the Minnesota Supreme Court. This is a group of six justices and one chief justice who oversees the operations and decisions of the trial courts and intermediate Court of Appeals. The Minnesota Supreme Court sits in St. Paul and usually hears its cases there but on occasion will hold a special session in another part of the state.

When someone has a case in court, they first have a hearing or trial before a judge or jury at the trial court level. If the amount in dispute is $10,000 or less, it can be heard in the Conciliation (small claims) Court. In criminal cases, a person is entitled to a jury of six in a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor case and a jury of twelve in a felony case. A civil case is heard by a jury of at least six or the judge. Money claims of up to $10,000 can be brought in Conciliation Court, which is heard by a judge or referee. This dollar limit was recently raised.

After a criminal or civil case is heard and decided by the District Court, a person who might disagree with the decision has the right to appeal the trial court’s decision to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals must accept every case submitted to it as long as the person submitting it meets all of the complex rules and procedures of that court. On occasion, the District Court will first allow reconsideration of its decision to correct a clerical error or for some other compelling reason, but this seldom happens.

After a matter is heard and decided by the Court of Appeals, then it can be appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court has the option to choose which cases it will hear on appeal. It does not have to hear every case that is appealed to it, and usually if the Supreme Court agrees with the decision of the Court of Appeals, it will usually not take up the case but will let the Court of Appeals’ decision stand. The Minnesota Supreme Court only hears cases when that court decides that a certain law needs clarification or that the decision of either the trial court or Court of Appeals needs clarification or correction.

Our third branch of government is funded by a small percentage of the State of Minnesota’s overall budget, about 1.8%. However, the courts play a very large role in the safety and stability of our society.

Until next time, we are in adjournment.

Judge Frank Kundrat is a District Court Judge chambered in St. Cloud.

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