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'Chaotic' damage seen to Iowa courts under budget cuts

Trials already being delayed as second year of cutbacks looms

“Cutting back on the process by which people can get access to fair and thorough justice is tragically shortsighted and threatens the ability of all Iowans to meaningfully protect civil and constitutional rights,” said Rita Bettis, legal director of the ACLU of Iowa.
“Cutting back on the process by which people can get access to fair and thorough justice is tragically shortsighted and threatens the ability of all Iowans to meaningfully protect civil and constitutional rights,” said Rita Bettis, legal director of the ACLU of Iowa.
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DES MOINES — The state’s courtrooms are operating under a financial duress significant enough to delay justice and cause emotional and monetary harm to Iowans, say many who work in and advocate for the justice system.

It’s about to get worse.

Just how much worse depends on how much money lawmakers and the governor agree to take back from the judicial branch in the five months remaining in the state’s budget year.

In the coming days, the Republican-controlled House and Senate will try to reach a deal on how to stave off a projected budget shortfall of $37 million by June 30.

For the second consecutive year, Iowa’s judicial system — already operating with a shortage of judges and other court personnel — is almost certain to be on the hook for more cuts.

“Without judges, clerks and court reporters available, it takes a long time to get things litigated,” said Michael Walton, president of the Iowa County Attorneys Association. “Criminal cases and major cases that used to last probably on average about six months are right around a year now. That’s a long time for a victim to wait for some sort of a resolution to a case.

The adage that “‘justice delayed is justice denied’ applies to victims in the state, too,” he said.

In the second half of the budget year that ended June 30, 2017, the judicial branch was told by lawmakers and then-Gov. Terry Branstad to cut $3 million.

More budget cuts are on the way this year.

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GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed a $1.6 million cut for the judicial branch. Senate Republicans are calling for much more — a $4.8 million cut — to provide a budget cushion in case there is a shortfall again nest year. House Republicans have not yet finalized their proposed numbers.

When Senate Republicans made their proposal, the judicial branch said in a statement their degree of cuts would force it to lay off staff — judges, clerks of court, court reporters and others — and close court services at nearly a third of Iowa’s courthouses.

Stephen Eckley, president of the Iowa State Bar Association, wrote to senators that the damage from their proposed cuts “would be widespread, chaotic and expensive.”

“Quite simply, this would create total chaos in the judicial branch and with your constituents back home,” he wrote.

While the judicial branch did not specify which of the 30 court operations were most likely to close if the Senate proposal won the day, there is concern the worst impacts would be felt in rural Iowa if the priority were determined by caseloads alone.

The 6th District, for instance, not only includes the metro area Linn and Johnson counties, but also Benton, Iowa, Jones and Tama counties.

The district had more than 88,000 criminal, civil and juvenile cases filed or reopened in 2017, according to the Iowa Judicial Branch. Most of the caseload — nearly 46,000 — was in Linn. The least — more than 3,000 — was in Tama.

Asked if any of the clerk’s offices in district would be impacted by more cuts, 6th District Chief Judge Patrick Grady said that “it’s a possibility.”

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He noted the district still is down a judge since Marsha Bergen retired last year. He hoped to be able to fill it this year, along with a court reporter vacancy.

An insufficient number of judges causes trials, hearings and other court meetings to be delayed. That creates emotional distress for individuals who must wait extra weeks and months for their day in court, and financial distress for individuals who have to add extra trips to the courthouse and billable hours with attorneys, said court workers and advocates.

“That can be really harmful to people that are involved. Sometimes they really can’t wait to get to trial before they’re going to be impacted in a meaningful and significant manner,” said Conrad Meis, a lawyer in Algona and president of the Iowa Association for Justice.

If courthouse functions are forced to close, that would add financial burdens to individuals then needing to travel to neighboring county courthouses, and to law enforcement agencies that would have to transport those charged with crimes, court workers and advocates said.

The added burdens can make prosecutors’ jobs more challenging, too, because they would need to persuade witnesses to testify in trials that are delayed or moved to neighboring counties, Meis said.

“What it means is it makes it more difficult for people to have the opportunity to tell their story in court and have their day in court and say why they’re entitled to justice,” Meis said.

Many court workers and advocates boiled down the issue to their belief that the budget cuts are undermining the constitutionally mandated system of justice.

“Our state has nothing less than a constitutional responsibility to properly fund our judicial system. Ever-increasing budget cuts threaten the ability of all Iowans to access justice to protect their constitutional rights, as well as access for day-to-day criminal and civil matters,” Rita Bettis, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, wrote in an email. “Cutting back on the process by which people can get access to fair and thorough justice is tragically shortsighted and threatens the ability of all Iowans to meaningfully protect civil and constitutional rights.”

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In his letter to senators, Eckley implored lawmakers to consider eliminating the judicial branch’s spending cuts altogether — like they agreed to do for K-12 education, for instance — or at the least negotiate a spending cut much less than what the Senate GOP has pitched.

Reynolds, who became governor in 2017 and started her political career working in the Clarke County courthouse as county treasurer, said she thinks her more modest budget recommendation accomplishes the dual goals of balancing the books without causing a massive disruption.

But she acknowledged any cuts will impact Iowans’ access to justice.

“I think there’s ways that we can respect some of the things that are real important to (the courts) by really reducing the impact on Iowans and services,” Reynolds said.

Linda Upmeyer, the Republican Speaker of the Iowa House, said she questions whether the courts would need to enact layoffs and closures to the degree the judicial branch suggested in the wake of the Senate Republicans’ proposal.

“I doubt that they’re going to need to close 30 courthouses,” she said. “I sure hope not, because that would seem like not trying very hard.”

Trish Mehaffey and Rod Boshart of The Gazette contributed.

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