Iowa's chief justice worries a funding crisis is near

'We're not the court system we can be'

Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady arrives Tuesday in the Iowa House chamber with the rest of the judicial delegation for the governor's Condition of the State address at Capitol. In his address the next day, Cady warned that a lack of funding is risking the court system's mission. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady arrives Tuesday in the Iowa House chamber with the rest of the judicial delegation for the governor's Condition of the State address at Capitol. In his address the next day, Cady warned that a lack of funding is risking the court system's mission. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Mark Cady this year reaches 20 years of being on the Iowa Supreme Court, selected by the other members as its chief justice in 2010. In his annual State of the Judiciary speech to House and Senate lawmakers last Wednesday, he warned there are “ominous signs” the mission of Iowa’s court system is in jeopardy.

The system employs 182 fewer people than a year ago and is operating with 11 vacant judgeships and 115 “essential” positions left open.

Cady took a few moments to answer questions at a news conference after his speech.

 

Q. The governor is recommending a $1.9 million deappropriation in the Judicial Branch’s $175 million budget at a time when you are warning that the lack of resources “tear at the very fabric of our operation and mission.” How will the court system cope with a midyear budget cut?

A: We’re going to continue to manage in the way we have. We focus on the Iowans we need to serve. But it’s getting harder and harder and harder. We see that we can’t expand the programs that are working for Iowans. It just gets difficult every year.

We really do have to make a commitment to stand up and support the courts.

Q. Will you furlough Judicial Branch employees to reduce your budget?

A: All of the options, we’re constantly considering them. We try to minimize the impact on Iowans first. We’ll continue to do that. We’ll continue to do the best we can.

Q. The Judicial Branch workforce has been reduced by 182 positions or 10 percent. You have 115 “essential” positions vacant, including 11 judgeships. Now the governor and legislators are talking about a midyear deappropriation. Are you at a crisis point?

A: We’re approaching that and that’s my concern. It’s a problem that seeps deeper and deeper into our process of justice. Ultimately, as I said, it’s difficult to think it’s actually affecting the quality of justice.

I said that because we all have to stand up and pay attention to what’s going on. I hope we do more of that.

Q. Do lawmakers get that?

A: I think so. Government is a process and we just have to continue to keep working to build it in the best way we can and to try to keep explaining that we need the support to do the things that are important to Iowans.

Q. One of your goals for the courts has been to eliminate the backlog of cases. How is the lack of resources affecting that goal?

A: It’s increasing again, which is really frustrating for me and our judges and our court system and, I’m sure, litigants. Two years ago, we made a concerted effort to build in a new process that would eliminate the backlog and eliminate the delays and it was truly working.

We have had to walk back from that. I think it is important that we be alert to look at the signs of where we are headed. I think those consequences are there and are being observed by people who watch the courts and use the courts.

Q. How do you justify asking for a budget increase when the state is facing revenue shortfalls?

A: At this time, what I see is building our court system. That’s the message I tried to convey. That’s what’s going to benefit Iowans the most. I don’t care what way you look at it — whether you look at it from the financial standpoint, we’re saving money every time we improve our process of justice. More important, we’re making Iowans’ live better and that’s what a court system needs to be doing.

Q. Do you see the situation improving?

A: “I’m troubled by what I see ahead. I’m going to continue to see those as challenges that we’re going to turn into opportunities and we’re going to keep fighting for our court system.

Q. One of the challenges you face is the retirement of as many as 12 judges this year. That’s the most since you had 17 retirements in one year. And you already have 11 vacancies. What’s happening?

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A: I think it’s a collective. The judges see what I see and the judges see what the Chamber of Commerce survey sees. (Iowa courts’ ratings dropped from fourth to 13th in the 50-state survey.) We’re not the court system we can be. We’re not attracting private practice lawyers like we did before. That’s just one of many, many signs that are there that I want to point out that we need more support.

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