Chief Justice Susan Christensen says Iowa justice may look different, but didn't succumb to COVID-19

Iowa Supreme Court Justice Susan Christensen speaks during her investiture ceremony at the Judicial Branch Building in D
Iowa Supreme Court Justice Susan Christensen speaks during her investiture ceremony at the Judicial Branch Building in Des Moines on Friday afternoon Sept. 21, 2018. (Matthew Putney/Freelance)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The Iowa judicial system has been “turned on its head” because of the coronavirus pandemic, Chief Justice Susan Christensen told lawmakers, but the system has survived through the “hard work, tenacity and sheer guts” of Judicial Branch employees.

“We couldn’t just shut the doors and say, ‘Come back when things are better,’” Christensen said in her first Condition of the Judiciary speech to a joint session Wednesday of the Iowa Legislaturey. “And it’s not like people have a choice to go to court — we tend to send out something called a subpoena or summons when we want someone to show up — not invitations with an R.S.V.P.”

As a mother of a son with cerebral palsy, Christensen said she’s been guided by the saying, “We cannot change the wind, but we can adjust the sails.”

When the Legislature and much of state government suspended their usual activities in March, the chief justice posed the question: “If COVID-19 is now the wind of which we cannot change, how can the Judicial Branch adjust its sails?”

COVID-19 placed a stranglehold on the judiciary and forced many changes. The Judicial Branch issued a statement that although access to justice may look different and require more patience, “it will not succumb to COVID-19.”

Changes included suspending in-person trials and justice went virtual, relying on technology to conduct proceedings remotely.

She highlighted a pilot program in two judicial districts that seeks to evaluate the workload across the district rather than by county. For example, there is a staff shortage in Pottawattamie County, so the workload is distributed across the other eight counties. Spreading that workload across the counties helps justify keeping rural courthouse offices open where the workload might not justify current staffing.


The program “keeps each county relevant — no matter the size. That’s a really good thing,” Christensen said.

She also outlined two priorities for the judicial system: a “family first” approach to dealing with child welfare; and elevating the presence of family treatment courts.

In the past, Christensen explained, federal funding could be accessed only when a court order had been issued removing a child from his or her home.

“That’s wrong,” she said, because studies show children experience long-term trauma when removed from their home and foster care “may, at times, be worse than any trauma associated with staying in the home.” Using the family first approach, families in crisis will receive access to services sooner, before a child is removed from the home.

Christensen also called attention to another “family first” program, “4 Questions, 7 Judges,” aimed at avoiding the removal of children from their families.

Over a 4-month period of time, seven judges in a pilot program received a combined 83 requests for removal of children. Nearly half of those requests were denied which means those children stayed home. Out of the 44 requests for removal which were granted, over half of those children were placed with either biological family or family friends. Only 15 out of 83 requests went to family foster care.

Her second priority, elevating family treatment courts, attempt to address matters including child abuse and neglect by targeting the root causes of the crisis.

Treatment courts give people the help they need to transition out of the justice system and into a healthier, productive life, Christensen said.


In addition to the benefits to the children and their families, Christensen said estimates show that since 2007 family treatment courts have generated nearly $18 million in cost avoidance for the state while allowing a strong majority of families involved to remain together and receive treatment.

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