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Shortages of court reporters, contract lawyers challenging Iowa’s courts
Chief Justice Susan Christensen sets up task force, seeks pay increase, heralds a Waterloo lawyer’s recovery
DES MOINES — Worker shortages are being felt all over the country and in most industries, and Iowa’s judicial system is no exception.
Shortages of court reporters and contract lawyers were among the issues highlighted Wednesday by Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen in her annual Condition of the Judiciary address to Iowa lawmakers at the Iowa Capitol.
Christensen, one of six justices on the seven-member court appointed by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, Christensen has been on the state Supreme Court since 2018 and became chief justice in 2020.
Christensen said the shortage of court reporters has been growing for multiple years. She said the judicial branch has established a committee to look into the issue, and she hopes to have recommendations by next year’s Condition of the Judiciary address.
“For the past few years, the judicial branch has become increasingly concerned about the growing imbalance between the number of court reporters retiring and the fewer number of people pursuing this incredible career,” Christensen said in her remarks to legislators gathered in the Iowa House chamber.
“We know how the court reporter crisis affects every aspect of the judicial process, and we are committed to making it better,” she said. “I hope to come back next year with proposed solutions to this crisis from the newly formed Court Reporter Utilization Committee made up of judges, court reporters and judicial staff. Stay tuned.”
Christensen also talked about a shortage of lawyers who are contracted to fill any gaps to represent Iowans who cannot afford a lawyer.
She listed multiple of examples of issues caused by the shortage: overworked court-appointed lawyers who start to turn down cases, defendants having as many as five lawyers cycling through during their case and lawyers facing extreme travel schedules.
She cited one example of a contract lawyer who traveled 100 miles to appear at separate hearings in neighboring counties, scheduled for a half-hour apart: one involving an attempted murder charge and the other a Class C felony. Then, the lawyer had to travel another 90 miles to appear at a 2:30 p.m. hearing on a case involving the termination of parental rights.
“While the court reporter crisis is having a profound impact on our ability to move cases along and consistently provide certified reporting, the statewide contract attorney shortage is threatening to bring criminal proceedings to a screeching halt,” Christensen warned.
“As you can see, our federal and state constitutional obligation to provide indigent counsel is on the verge of snapping. Lawyers, judges and court administration are scrambling to try and cover bases. Something has to give.”
Out of Iowa’s 5,000 full-time, active lawyers, less than 600 — roughly 12 percent — represent indigent criminal defendants, Christensen said.
Christensen said the judicial branch supports increased funding for indigent defense, and she said those lawyers should receive higher hourly pay in order to attract lawyers who feel burdened by student loans. She also suggested lawyers should be reimbursed for their travel when they represent clients in multiple counties.
Brian Lohse, a Republican state lawmaker from Bondurant and a lawyer who is in his first session as chairman of the Iowa House’s judicial budget committee, said his goal this year is to boost contract lawyers’ pay to $100 per hour, phased in over four years, and address mileage reimbursement in some form.
Lohse said he understands the financial constraints on contract lawyers that Christensen described in her remarks.
“My goal is to get this to — there's a $32 across the board increase to get the minimum level to be $100 an hour,” Lohse said. “(Legislate) some way to reimburse them for the time they can spend in the car. … It's got to get done.”
The chief justice also highlighted the recent reinstatement of a lawyer whose license had been revoked due to misconduct related to substance abuse.
Christensen said Luke Guthrie went to AA, moved to Waterloo and got married. In December, his license was reinstated, and he is practicing law in Waterloo.
Guthrie, who attended Wednesday’s address as one of Christensen’s guests, is once again working with the state public defender’s office. Christensen said he has spent days visiting incarcerated clients and sharing his own struggles.
Christensen said Guthrie’s story gives her the “springboard” to encourage all Iowans, but especially lawyers, to seek help for substance abuse or mental health needs. She noted research suggests lawyers abuse alcohol at rates 50 percent to 80 percent higher than the overall population.
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