Government

Iowa court cases go unresolved far longer than national standards

Court administrator seeks more judges and courthouse staffing

Gavel. (MGN)
Gavel. (MGN)

DES MOINES — It may sound cliché to say “justice delayed is justice denied,” but state court administrator Todd Nuccio believes justice delayed is frustrating — and costly — to Iowans.

Nuccio told lawmakers Wednesday it’s “somewhat concerning” that nearly 21 percent of domestic relations cases in the state are still pending over a year. The national standard for such domestic cases — marriage dissolution, custody and paternity — is that no more than 2 percent of them should be older than a year.

It’s also “quite concerning” that 15 percent of complex civil cases are pending after two years and 30 percent of regular civil cases are pending after a year, Nuccio told the House-Senate Judicial Systems Appropriations Subcommittee.

The national standards for those categories are not more than 2 percent and 10 percent over the same time periods, respectively.

Some delays, he noted, are due to the litigants — not the judicial system.

In his annual report on the Iowa judicial branch and budget request, Nuccio sought four more district associate judges each year for five years, as well as an increase in other courthouse personnel to reduce the time cases remain in the system.

The cost of adding four judges and other court staff would come to about $2.27 million next fiscal year.

“We want to be in a position to offer everybody the ability to get timely justice,” Nuccio said later. “Is a one-day delay acceptable? Is a year delay acceptable?”

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It’s up to Iowans to tell lawmakers what is acceptable, he said, and up to lawmakers to decide.

House Judicial Systems Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, doesn’t know what’s acceptable but said “it’s concerning that we have civil cases that are languishing out there for over a year.”

“I think it’s important that they’re able to accomplish what they need to in a timely manner,” said Worthan. “Most Iowans, I think, would agree that when I’ve got something that needs to be settled in court I don’t want to wait 14 months for it to get settled.”

Nuccio reported that in every category, the age of cases pending in Iowa courts exceeds national standards.

For felonies, the national standard is to have 2 percent or fewer of cases pending more than two months. In Iowa, it’s 19 percent.

For indictable misdemeanors, the national standard is not more than 10 percent pending for more than six months. In Iowa, 26 percent of such cases are older than six months.

For probate cases, the national standard is not more than 2 percent for longer than two years. In Iowa, 16 percent are older than that.

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, a lawyer, called the information “extraordinarily valuable” and thought it impressive that 80 percent of felony cases are resolved in a year.

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Although not every Iowan is personally affected by judicial delays, Worthan compared it with needing to see a doctor.

“When you need a doctor, you need a doctor. Otherwise, so what,” he said. “When you need the court system, you need it.”

Because of a state budget shortfall that also affected other state operations, 1,446 judicial branch employees were furloughed on May 26, 2017, to save $364,000. In 2018, then-Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady warned lawmakers of “ominous signs” pointing to a funding crisis in the court system.

Worthan hasn’t received a new budget target for the judicial system, but is optimistic the Legislature will address some of Nuccio’s staffing concerns.

“We’re going do a lot better than we have in the past,” he said. “I’m thinking people are going to be pleased with what we’re going to be able to do this year.”

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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