DES MOINES — Iowa Supreme Court Acting Chief Justice David Wiggins used his “one and done” Condition of the Judiciary to pay tribute and highlight how the judiciary is woven into the fabric of Iowa communities.
The death of Chief Justice Mark Cady in November “sent shock waves” through the judicial branch as well as across the state and nation,” Wiggins told a joint session of the Senate and House Wednesday. He described Cady as “an outstanding legal scholar, a thoughtful colleague, a good friend and a strong leader.”
“His leadership brought our justice system to where we are today and provides us with a clear vision of where we need to go in the future in order to achieve his goal to be the best justice system in the nation,” said Wiggins, a Supreme Court justice since 2003.
The court is in a time of transition, Wiggins said. In addition to Cady, three former justices have died in the past year, and one, Christopher McDonald, has joined the court.
“But there is more change to come,” he said. When Gov. Kim Reynolds appoints a justice to succeed Cady, the court will choose a new chief justice. Wiggins, 69, has announced he will be retiring at about that time, creating another vacancy for Reynolds to fill. Those will be her third and fourth appointments to the seven-member court.
“While there will be many changes, I am confident that the newly composed court will serve with distinction” in the tradition of Cady and the late Justices Arthur McGiverin, Daryl Hecht and Bruce Snell Jr.
Delivering a speech that Cady had started before his death, Wiggins also paid respect to the legislators for their service and because “you speak and act for the people of Iowa.”
“Our government was set up for you to be their voice,” he said.
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Courts, he continued, also “were set up to speak, but in a more limited way by resolving legal disputes “by applying the law, including the values and principles found in the people’s constitution.”
The Legislature has been criticized for changes it has made in the judicial nominating process for filling vacancies on the Supreme Court. Last year, the GOP-controlled Legislature changed the makeup of the judicial nominating commission to allow Gov. Reynolds to appoint the majority of the commission. In the past, the bar and government appointed equal numbers of members and a Supreme Court justice was the final member.
Opponents of the move said the change would give the governor, through her appointments to the commission, too much sway over the makeup of the court.
Wiggins didn’t address the judicial nominating changes directly, but reminded the lawmakers of the importance of the court’s independence.
“The independence of the courts from the political branches is not a divide but our very strength as a state and as a nation,” Wiggins said.
He also highlighted community-based programs in Scott, Black Hawk and Buena Vista counties that he said are indicative of how the courts “are integrated into the fabric of each community.”
In addition to the judicial system’s physical presence in 100 county courthouses, the 1,700 Iowans who work in the courts also are active members of their communities “who volunteer their time and skills for the benefit of their communities.”
“Regardless of how they choose to serve their communities during their personal time, professionally, these Iowans work in our court system every day to provide justice to their neighbors,” Wiggins said.
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The acting chief justice made no mention of the Judicial Branch’s request for a 3.9 percent budget increase. The courts are asking for $192 million in general fund revenue to increase salaries and hire additional staff at cler of court offices.
The request to increase this fiscal year’s $184.6 million state appropriation by $7.2 million includes $900,000 for the 17 full-time positions required for the clerk of court offices to be staffed at the recommended level of 2.5 FTE positions per courthouse, according to budget documents filed with the Legislative Services Agency and the state Department of Management.
In closing, Wiggins again drew on the tradition and example of Cady to encourage the Judicial Branch to continue to promote public understanding of the justice system. He noted how in the wake of three justices being ousted by voters after the unanimous decision striking down a ban on same-sex marriage, Cady had taken the court on the road to conduct hearings in several communities and to meet with students and other members of the public.
“We must display our shared values in a strong democracy,” Wiggins said. “We must reveal the values and strengths of the institution of justice. Justice endures when we promote public trust and confidence in our court system. Justice endures when Iowans in every community see the value in the services our court system provides. Justice endures when Iowans in every community see their fair and impartial courts as essential to democracy.”
Wiggins’ speech can be found at www.iowacourts.gov.
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