1. What Should I Expect When I Go to Court in Minnesota?
You should expect the opportunity to be heard by a judge when you go to court. The opportunity to be heard is a basic and important right in Minnesota. You want to make the most of that opportunity, so be prepared.
Minnesota has a history of a strong and independent court system where court participants are given the opportunity to be heard. However, court dockets can be full and judges are busy.
Here are some helpful hints about going to a district court in Minnesota:
- Always be on time. If you are late and do not communicate with the court, the court could hold the hearing and rule against you. You could lose the case. Sometimes, there can be security line to get into the courthouse, so arrive a few minutes early.
- Dress appropriately for court. You do not need to wear a suit or a tie, but try to avoid anything that might be controversial or have a violent message. Remember, judges frequently have conflicting stories from parties and has to decide which party is credible. You want to leave a positive impression on the judge and court staff.
- Be prepared to wait before your hearing is called. Rural courts often run efficiently and your hearing will likely be close to the assigned time. However, the urban courts may have more “block scheduling”, meaning your case could be lumped together with many other cases within a 1, 2, or 3-hour block. In that case, you might not know if your case will be first or last. Make arrangements so that you can be present for your hearing.
- Be prepared to negotiate with the other party before the hearing. There is a general rule in Minnesota that parties should have settlement discussions before any motion hearing. Judges generally expect the parties to touch base in the hallway or the back of the courtroom before the hearing to see if there are any agreements, which would limit the issues for the judge to decide.
- Don't interrupt the judge or other parties at the hearing. This will irritate the judge, but talking over others will make it difficult for the court reporter to make a record of the proceeding.
- If you have an attorney, let your attorney speak. Feel free to write notes back and forth with your attorney, but make sure you listen to what the judge and others are saying at the hearing. It is also important for your attorney to listen to others as well. Don't speak unless the judge or your attorney asks you to speak.
- Make sure you speak clearly and in an organized manner. You will have less time than you think, so outline your arguments first and then get into more detail. It may not hurt to practice before going into court. If the judge asks questions, do your best to honestly and accurately answer the judge.
- Sometimes, the judge holds an “in-chambers” meeting with attorneys before a hearing. This is off the record and is a way for the judge to get an update on the case before going into the courtroom. Generally, the parties themselves are in the courtroom. Just understand that the judge is trying to get his or her bearings, and is not trying to leave the parties out of the conversation. Your attorney will fill you in the discussion, but a similar discussion will probably occur on the record in the courtroom.
- Be respectful to the judge, court staff, and other parties. Your credibility depends on it.
2. What Courts Are There in Minnesota?
Minnesota has federal, state, administrative, and specialty courts. Here is a basic list of courts in Minnesota:
- Minnesota Supreme Court (St. Paul)
- Minnesota Court of Appeals (St. Paul and roving)
- Minnesota District Courts (each county)
- Minnesota Administrative Courts (St. Paul and roving)
- Minnesota Tax Court
- Workers Compensation Court of Appeals
- Tribal Courts
- District Court, District of Minnesota (Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, Fergus Falls)
- Federal Bankruptcy Court (Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, Fergus Falls)
- Specialty Courts (Drug Court, Veteran's Court)
Most cases are held in Minnesota District Courts. There are rules about which county is the proper district court, but generally speaking you can file where the underlying facts occurred or where the defendant resides. You will have a district court judge presiding over your case. If there are appeals, it would go to a 3-judge panel of the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Further appeals are heard by the full 7-member panel of the Minnesota Supreme Court, but they take relatively few cases and there is generally no automatic right to be heard by them.
Fewer cases are heard in the Federal District Court, District of Minnesota. Federal courts have limited jurisdiction, and complicated rules about what cases and issues can be heard. Generally speaking, federal courts are for cases with issues of federal law or parties from different states and $75,000+ in dispute. Federal courts have separate rules than state courts and are often more formal than state courts. They have judges and federal magistrates that make decisions in federal cases. Appeals are heard by the Eighth Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, then the U.S. Supreme Court. Keep in mind that not all attorneys are admitted into federal court, although it is typically not difficult to be admitted. If you have a case in federal court, including Federal Bankruptcy Court, you will need an attorney that is admitted in federal court.
There are also cases that are heard in administrative and specialty courts. The Minnesota State Administrator's Office and the Minnesota Office of Administrative Hearings can provide information on these other courts.
If you have questions about what court your civil dispute will be in, contact a civil litigation attorney.
3. Where Can I Find Information About My Court Case in Minnesota?
From your attorney, from a court administrator by phone, at courthouse computers, or through the Minnesota Courts website.
Minnesota has a computer system that can be accessed on the internet. The system is called MNCIS. You don't need an account or password to get into the site. Once in, you can search by case number, party name, or attorney name. This search will give you the Register of Actions for the case, which is the list of activity in the case and a summary of filings. There may also be a few notes from the court administrator. The Register of Actions should also show upcoming court hearings. The system gives you information about all case types in district court except child protection and domestic abuse matters. The MNCIS system also shows any active or inactive civil judgments.
The internet version of MNCIS shows only the Register of Actions, not the actual documents that were filed in the case. You will have to go to a MNCIS computer at a courthouse to click into the electronic documents, assuming it's a newer case. For older cases, you may have to actually go to the courthouse in the county where the case was venued to see physical copies of documents.
Federal courts have a system called PACER which requires a subscription and has small charges. You may be able search electronic documents at federal courthouses.
For cases in Administrative Courts, you will likely need to contact the Office of Administrative Hearings in St. Paul in order go get the documents.
For appeal cases and further information on electronic documents, see the next FAQ.
4. Where Can I Get Electronic Documents From a Minnesota Court Case?
For district court cases, you generally must either go to the courthouse computers or pay for a copy to be mailed to you.
Generally, Minnesota courts have an electronic filing system where attorneys submit PDFs of documents through an electronic system, rather than mailing them or physically filing them. These electronic documents should be available at a public MNCIS computer at the courthouse. Unless the case is on paper filing or is a protected case type (domestic abuse or child protection), you should be able to access the electronic documents from any county with a MNCIS computer. Note that you may not be able to see the letters written by the attorneys, parties, or the judge. You will likely only see the filed documents such as pleadings, motions, and court orders.
For cases at the Minnesota Supreme Court or Minnesota Court of Appeals, there is a separate computer system here. This system generally allows you to access electronic documents from any computer, rather than a courthouse computer. While appeal briefs can't usually be accessed on this system, other documents and decisions can be found.
Once appeal decisions are issued, the Minnesota Courts website publishes the decision for a week. Then, the decisions (and briefs) are archived at the Minnesota Law Library and its website.
5. Where Can I Find Information on the Judge That Will Decide My Case?
The Minnesota Judicial Branch website generally has judge bios. The Minnesota State Bar Association website has courtroom preferences that have been prepared by district court judges. If your judge has a page listed, it can be useful for understanding what the judge expects at a hearing.
As a general matter, courts are open to the public and you can use the public MNCIS site to find when your judge has a calendar. You are free to watch another hearing if you want to observe how the judge operates in the courtroom. However, each case is different and small differences in a similar case may lead to a different outcome. Do not speak to the judge or otherwise attempt contact, as this will be seen as improper ex parte communication.
Judges are generally appointed by the governor if a judge retires, resigns, or is removed within his or her 6-year term. Judges are up for re-election every 6 years. Most judgeships are not contested. When they are, you might find out information about the judge's judicial philosophy and background.
6. What If I Don't Like the Judge?
A party generally has one free right to remove a judge at the start of the case, regardless of the reason. Other parties generally get the opportunity to “strike” a judge as well.
Minnesota has a tradition of competent, independent judges that professionally handle cases. For this reason, it is somewhat unusual to remove judges. Practically speaking, most cases proceed with the judge that was initially assigned to the case. The judge is generally assigned on a randomized basis through court computers, as will be the next judge in the case. Usually, court administration will have to assign another judge from that judicial district if the initial judge is removed.
After the initial strikes, a party can only remove a judge for bias, misconduct, or a similar reason. A party generally has to present a motion to the judge for removal or to the chief judge of the district. Practically speaking, if there is a clear reason for the judge to be off the case, it may be prudent to tell the judge and see if he or she will voluntarily recuse from the case. That will save everyone time and effort. However, there are limited cases where a party has to proceed with a motion to remove the judge and sometimes that party prevails.
Once your case proceeds with a judge, you should be respectful of the judge. Your credibility may be important in the case, so present yourself as a professional and honest person. If you don't have an attorney for a civil dispute, it is important to speak with one and if you are a business entity you may even be required to have a licensed attorney.
7. What Should I Know About Minnesota Court Staff?
They work closely with judges, so treat them with respect. If you are rude or unkind to them, chances are that the judge may hear about it and it may hurt your credibility in the case.
Court staff includes judges, court reporters, judicial law clerks, court administrators, bailiffs, and perhaps other courthouse employees. Here is a brief summary of court staff:
- Court reporter: There is usually one court reporter assigned to each judge. Traditionally, court reporters used a typewriter to type simultaneously with the court hearings. Now, court reporters simply record the hearings electronically and take some notes. They serve an important role because if you want a transcript of a hearing, trial, or case, you can request one from the court reporter. They will charge a fee based on the size of the transcript and may require an advance deposit. If you appeal a case, you will likely need a transcript in order to show the appeals court what happened in district court. Court reporters also perform various duties for a judge. They may coordinate phone calls for certain hearings, screen phone calls for a judge, write letters for the judge to sign, administer oaths to witnesses, schedule hearings, make sure the court calendar is on schedule, and other miscellaneous tasks. Many court reporters have worked for the same judge for many years, so they have a close working relationship with the judge. Since court reporters are the buffer between you and the judge, it is crucial that you treat the court reporter with respect. If you have any problems related to scheduling of a case, it may be best to write to the judge rather than complain to a court reporter.
- Judicial law clerk: A judicial law clerk is usually a law school graduate that has passed the bar exam. Judicial clerkships are competitive and usually go to top law students. Judicial clerks play a key support role for a judge. They are usually in the courtroom for contested hearings that may result in a written decision by the judge. They review docket filings in advance of hearings so that the judge can understand the disputed legal issues. They listen closely to any arguments and testimony at the hearing. This is because judges often have them write the first draft of orders. Judicial clerks are the ones who perform legal research for the judge, and generally read the cases and statutes cited by the attorneys. They also prepare jury instructions for jury trials. Because judicial clerks are indispensable employees that work closely with judges, be respectful to them.
- Court administrators: Court administrators process court filings and schedule hearings. When you call into the court, you will speak to a court administrator. They can provide you with case information. If there is an issue with a filing, they will contact you. There is often a court administrator in the courtroom for most hearings. They serve a key role in scheduling hearings, maintaining dockets, and keeping to the court schedule. They also work closely with judges and other staff, so you should be careful what you tell them and how you treat them.
- Bailiffs: Most people are familiar with courtroom bailiffs. They keep order for the court. They may screen people for weapons at courtroom entrances, call parties into the courtroom for hearings, bring handcuffed defendants into court, and generally keep order in the court. Often, they are Sheriff's Deputies for the county in which the courthouse is located. While they are in the courtroom for virtually all hearings, they serve an important security role in criminal and family law cases. They also work to keep judges safe, so be respectful to them.
These are the main court staff that you will interact with at a district court. There are similar employees in appeals courts. While it appears that judges do most of the work at a court, there are many support staff that play a role in the justice system.
If an attorney has worked at a court before moving into private practice, they often have good relationships with judges and other court staff. Former judicial clerks often have unique insights into the litigation process and have excellent research skills, which can be valuable to your case.