Iowa legislators support chief justice's address, budget requests

Protecting children, maintain court access among Cady's emphases in speech

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UPDATE: Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady’s call for continued support for the Judicial Branch’s “grand vision” of making Iowa’s court system “the best, most advanced and most responsive” in the nation was, for the most part, well-received by the Legislature.

“I was enthused,” Senate Justice Systems Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tom Courtney, D-Burlington, said Jan. 16. “In fact I told him, ‘I think your speech today was better received than the governor’s.’ It looked more to the future. I know I’m biased, but it was a brighter speech to me.”

His House counterpart on the Justice System subcommittee, Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, withheld judgment on the tone of Cady’s remarks, but said the chief justice’s request for a 3.5 percent increase in the Judicial Branch budget to $167.7 million was “well within reason.”

“He laid out a very good case,” Worthan said after the chief justice’s annual address to a joint session of the Legislature. “The court has been very responsive as far as trying to increase efficiencies. They’ve pushed that as about as far as they can and it’s our responsibility to come up with some of the funds they need to push this effort farther down the road.”

Support for technology must be matched with support for competitive salaries that reward court personnel for superior performance, Cady added.

Again, Worthan found the chief justice’s request reasonable.

“We’re looking at a situation where all of our judges and magistrates have foregone a raise for the last five years so we could keep as many people employed as we could,” he said.

Even with the efficiencies gained through electronic filing of court documents, he hears complaints that it may take a year before a civil case is heard by a judge.

“That’s not acceptable. A year is unacceptable,” Worthan said.

House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, has heard similar complaints from businesses “that get very frustrated” with delays in civil actions.

He appreciates the court’s “aggressive” deployment of the Electronic Document Management System.

“It needs to continue to carry forward,” Paulsen said.

Despite the move to electronic filing of court documents, Cady said the system is “plagued with costly, frustrating and unnecessary delays.”

“One courtroom delay is one too many,” he said. “This is not how a justice system should operate.”

So he called for expanding the paperless court system to another 30 counties this year. Since 2010 when electronic filing was introduced, it has been expanded to 45 counties, Cady said, and 189,000 cases have been filed electronically, 975,000 documents stored in the electronic system, 15 percent of all filings are done online and there are nearly 14,000 registered users in addition to court employees.

Another attempt at efficiency is the development of business courts staffed by judges specially trained in issues facing businesses, Cady said.

“Often, the time waiting for a resolution can be time when capital is not invested, new employees are not hired or economic development is put on hold,” he said.

If there was room for disagreement with the chief justice’s remarks it was in his assertion that judges “make decisions based on the facts of a case and the rule of law, not their personal beliefs or popular opinion.”

Rep. Tom Shaw, R-Laurens, thought that sounded like an attempt to justify the decisions of the court, including Varnum v. Brien, a unanimous 2009 decision Cady wrote striking down a state law banning same-sex marriage.

“I fully support any efficiency we can have in government,” he said. “I fully support access by the citizens of Iowa to the court system. My difference of opinion is you can’t have justice if you’re only going to strictly adhere to man’s law rather than adhering to the laws of nature. That’s where the disconnect is with many Iowans.”

Likewise, Rep. Dwayne Alons, R-Hull, appreciated the court “moving forward in the realm of technology and trying to do more things efficiently.”

“But I had a little bit of a question mark when I heard his emphasis on cooperating between the branches,” Alons said. “There was very little cooperation with the courts when it came to their decision on the same-gender marriage issue.’

The Iowa Code still defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman, he said. “So I still have that issue bothering me because I think everything was done from the standpoint of the court giving an opinion … That is their opinion about their issue.”

Shaw likely will vote against Cady’s proposed budget, but does not plan to re-introduce an attempt to impeach the justices.

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