Yes, judicial funding decisions do affect you
It is time for the people of Iowa to speak out. Our constitution provides that the Executive, Legislative and judicial branch are separate but equal branches of government. I would submit, however, that is not even close to reality. When one branch relies 100 percent on its very existence on the other two branches for its funding it is definitely not equal.
I want you to talk to your legislator and when you do ask them these questions:
1. Have you voted for a raise for yourself or the executive branch the in the last 10 years?
2. If so, do you find it unfair that judges in Iowa have not received a raise in 10 years? (just an FYI, they and every clerk and court administrator has effectively had a cut in wages. They have paid ever increasing portions of the cost of health insurance and have been unpaid for every furlough day and every court closure.)
3. Do you really think that the budget cuts affect just judges, lawyers, clerks of court, court administration and Juvenile Court officers?
Frankly, what is the saddest is that as devastating as the cuts are on the judges, court administrators, clerks of court and Juvenile Court officers, the most significant effect is felt by every Iowan who finds himself/herself needing to use the judicial system. Think about it and ask yourself if you have ever had a family member or close friend that needed the court to help them- maybe it was a divorce, maybe their child was in a bad peer group and got into trouble but was still a child that could be saved, they got arrested for their one and only drunken driving, they wanted to adopt the baby they had longed for, they needed to be compensated for their injuries in a car accident, were fired from a job wrongfully, the list could go on and on. Then ask yourself: should they have to wait YEARS for a resolution?
So how about some statistics for those of my friends who are doubters. Most car accident cases do not reach trial for nearly three years. That means doctor’s bills go to collection and credit ratings are ruined for years. It also means that people are often left without the ability to get the care they need to recover because, like good Iowans, they do not want to go back to a doctor they already owe so much.
I do family law- divorces and custody cases. If court administration called me today to set a two-day custody trial here in Linn County (a county that has been short one judge now for nearly 8 months), I will be setting it in January 2018. That is a long time for people to wait in equipoise to have a determination on who will be making the primary decision on where their child goes to school, who will live in the family home, what the financial division will be, what the alimony and child support will be. For some, it is a long time to wait for a decision on whether they will financially survive. Then finally, that long awaited day comes for the trial and they are notified by me that I am sorry but that their case cannot be heard, we simply do not have enough judges to hear your case. They have paid for their lawyer to prepare, for witnesses to appear and taken the time off work only to have to essentially start over.
Court administrators and lawyers work hard together to get the case back on the calendar as soon as possible, which is usually at least six months from their original trial date. So you finally have the trial two years after the first time a lawyer is contacted to set the trial. The judge who hears the case has had a full case load the entire time-at least half of which is family law which requires written factual findings and a ruling based on the law and facts, not an easy task, and certainly a time consuming task. Since we are short judges, every judge in our district takes on more of a workload and, of course, gets further behind on their rulings. So maybe we wait 2 months and maybe we wait 6 months for our case to get to the top of the pile to do the ruling. Really, this is what you want for your sister, brother, best friend, neighbor, co-worker?
This is not how Iowa is. And just for the record, for those who think our judges have a cushy job and should just stop whining-they are not like our legislators who get regular raises and per diems for every day they work their part-time job. Judges work their butts off. I am an early to office person and I can tell you that I can send emails to some of the judges at 6:30 in the morning and get a reply, others at 9:00 at night. With electronic filing, I see daily rulings that are uploaded by our judges at 5 a.m., at 7 p.m., at 10 p.m. I get rulings on Saturdays and Sundays-supposedly their days off. The system stamps it when they hit send. They take their job and their responsibility to each of you very seriously.
Then I want you to ask your legislator if they have voted for a bill that made something else illegal which will result in more cases and more work ... ask them how they can in good conscience do that and not compensate the people who take the legislators’ work seriously and rule on the cases that work produces for them.
I am beyond sick of it. I am disgusted and appalled. The legislature’s decision to cut the judicial budget affects REAL people, not us elite lawyers. It affects the moms I represent, the dads I represent, the children I represent, the elderly people and their families I represent. I am just the bearer of the bad news that the legislature does not care enough about Iowans to fully fund their courts so their matters can be heard and ruled on. The worst thing that happens to me is that I get yelled at about the SYSTEM or have a sobbing client in my office.
Legislators, you are not hurting us lawyers (who many of you think of as elitist and not worth listening to, that is until you need one of us). You are hurting our everyday Iowan. So this is why I posted. We lawyers have tried to convince our legislators that it is time to fund our court system. We need you, the people who are being affected, to talk to your legislator.
Tell them your story about how the lack of funding has caused delays and how those delays impacted you. Tell them how much more your case cost because your lawyer had to prepare parts of your case twice because you got bumped. Tell them about the witnesses that moved or died or were otherwise unavailable when the next date came along. Tell them how your credit was affected. Tell them how you just couldn’t go see that doctor you owed so much and how that impacted your healing. Tell them about the time you took off work only to be bumped by an overburdened and understaffed system. Tell them how emotionally devastating it was that you had to be in limbo so long. Please just talk to them. I ask this of you not for me, not even for judges, but for you, your friends, your family members, co-workers, spouses, because face it … it is a very rare Iowan who never needs the court.
• Crystal L. Usher is a partner at Nazette, Marner, Nathanson & Shea LLP who has been practicing primarily in family law for 25 years.