As a result of lowered tax receipt projections, Iowa’s governor and Legislature must “deappropriate funds” — i.e., cut budgets on which decisions already have been made — to cover the fiscal 2017 shortfall. Gov. Terry Branstad’s proposal included $110 million in reductions, with the judicial branch bearing $7.7 million in cuts. Legislative Republicans have proposed a smaller, $3 million cut to the judiciary.
These budget cuts would severely compromise the judicial system’s ability to deliver what Iowans need from the third branch of their state government. With less than half the fiscal year left, the cuts would have an outsized impact on the courts far greater than the numbers alone suggest.
Last year, the judicial branch needed a 3 percent increase for 2017 just to maintain its level of service. The Legislature denied this request: The 2017 budget provided no increase at all. Because the court system’s budget is 96 percent personnel, increases often are the result of rising health care premiums and cost-of-living increases outside the control of the judicial branch. That is to say, a flat budget is a decrease in real terms. Because the budget already has been committed to these required personnel costs, additional cuts would only deepen the divide between the courts’ needs and the resources supplied.
In practical terms, these cuts would have far-reaching impacts on Iowans: Take, for example, someone injured in a car accident and seeking a trial to determine how much was needed to cover their losses and help them with medical costs, lost wages and their injuries. That person already might not be able to have a trial set for 18 months after filing the suit, and the trial might then be “bumped” three days before because of a lack of court staff or judges and reassigned even further out. Already, some rural counties can offer trial dates only one week a month for civil cases.
The courts already were forced to respond to their current flat budget by cutting costs to the bone. As shown on the judicial branch website, this included a systemwide hiring freeze and leaving open critical judicial vacancies for months. Chief Justice Mark Cady already has warned that without increases in 2018, there is a potential for layoffs, closing courthouses, reducing hours, delaying the maintenance of electronic dockets, delaying civil litigation and eliminating specialty courts. The proposed cuts would seriously hamper an already-strained and underfunded court system.
In 2013, the Iowa Supreme Court established six priorities for the court system in providing the services Iowans expect: protecting Iowa’s children; providing full-time access to justice; operating an efficient, full-service court system; providing faster and less costly resolution of legal disputes; operating in an open and transparent manner; and providing fair and impartial justice for all. With Iowa’s courts already handling more than 730,000 newly filed cases each year, along with those filed in prior years, these proposed cuts would have a dramatic negative impact on achieving these goals. Iowans expect more and deserve better.
• Nick Kilburg has practiced law in Cedar Rapids since 2010. He is a member of the Iowa State Bar Association and the Linn County Bar Association, and former president of the Dean Mason Ladd Inn of Court.