Chief justice warns budget cuts may 'hinder' Iowa courts, justice

Mark Cady delivers annual Condition of the Judiciary address

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DES MOINES — Iowa’s courts could be hampered by a lack of resources, Chief Justice Mark Cady said Wednesday, but he didn’t spell out how the Judicial Branch plans to absorb the loss of $7.725 million in the last half of the budget year.

The court system has a hiring freeze, is holding open judicial vacancies, reducing travel and other expenses, but Cady said he cannot assure Iowans they won’t see courthouse hours and services reduced if the proposed reduction is approved by lawmakers.

“The way ahead may be hindered by limited resources,” Cady said in his annual Condition of the Judiciary address to a joint session of the Iowa Legislature Wednesday, a day after Gov. Terry Branstad itemized the cuts in the state’s $7.2 billion general fund budget.

Although he promised to work with lawmakers to minimize the impact of a budget cut, Cady put the ball in the Legislature’s court.

“Each year, the level of your investment determines the level of services we provide,” he said.

Cady, chief justice of the seven-member Iowa Supreme Court since 2010, acknowledged “this is a time of scarce financial resources,” but called for a 6.9 percent budget increase to $194,304,740 for the budget year beginning July 1. That includes:

l $8.25 million to allow all 99 county courthouses to remain open on a full-time basis and continue operation of specialty courts such as family treatment courts, juvenile drug courts and mental health courts.

l $2.26 million for a 5 percent salary increase for approximately 390 judges and magistrates who have received one pay increase since July 2008.

l $2 million to restore a portion of day-to-day operating costs for the IT department that was moved from the state general fund to the enhanced court collections during a previous budget shortfall.

Already, the Judicial Branch’s limited resources are starting to show “some chink in the armor,” he said after his speech. “We are starting to see delays in our court processing. I fear this is going to continue if our needs aren’t met through resources. If we don’t get the money to perform our services there will be less services to Iowa and there are a lot of negative consequences.”

Leaders of the Justice Systems Appropriations Subcommittee that makes budget recommendations for the court system are in agreement with Cady.

“I think the chief justice hit the nail on the head,” said Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake. “What we struggle with as legislators is to try to quantify what the court system does for us and he laid it out in extremely plain terms this morning.”

Cady focused much of his speech on the success of the courts — success, he said, that serves justice and improves the overall quality of life. However, he also gave lawmakers hard numbers to support his argument that through their investment the courts save taxpayers money.

“When 329 fewer young adults go to prison, taxpayers save more than $11 million,” Cady said. When juvenile courts provide early treatment of youth offenders, taxpayers save $5.8 million and family treatment courts allow taxpayers to avoid an additional $4.9 million in costs. All told, he said the three programs generate close to a $22 million return on investment.

The courts are doing a lot of good, said Rep. Todd Taylor, D-Cedar Rapids, the ranking member of the Justice System subcommittee.

“I don’t want to change that,” he said, so before approving the governor’s recommended cuts lawmakers have to ask whether the courts are doing what’s asked of them and whether it’s working.

“I would say ‘yes,’ ” Taylor said. “They’ve actually saved us money. We don’t want to undermine their ability to save us money.”

The success of any organization comes from having the right people, the right vision and the right investment, Cady said. The state’s investment has contributed to the success of the Judicial Branch “and it is critical for continued success.”

However, in recent months, Iowans have begun to experience a disruption in court services and the level of investment is not allowing the courts to sustain the current level of service to Iowans, he said.

“This signals that our successes cannot be maintained,” Cady warned. “It means delays will return. It means efficiencies lost. It means specialty courts may be eliminated. It means our troubled youth will see less of our juvenile officers. It means part-time hours may return for courthouses.”

Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, doesn’t want to see that happen, but said it will be the Judicial Branch’s decision.

“The Judicial Branch decides how that money is spent,” Chelgren said. “If they choose to close courthouses that will be their decision. We have to trust they will make the best use of the money.”

The Judicial Branch will continue to earn that trust, Cady said, but that will require continued funding. He warned against using budget difficulties as a reason to lower expectations for courts.

The courts have the will to succeed, Cady said, but it will take more than will to continue that success.

“It is time to build the future with an investment that affirms the work of the Judicial Branch, and affirms the lives of families, children, business owners, employees and all Iowans,” he said. “It is time to build a future united by one will to achieve success for all.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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