CEDAR RAPIDS — Kellee Cortez has a unique perspective of the inner workings of the court — going from keeping the written record of legal proceedings as a court reporter to an administrative role, which helped prepare her to oversee the court operations in the 6th Judicial District.
Cortez, 50, of Cedar Rapids, was appointed in January as the district court administrator to replace her mentor, Carroll Edmondson, who retired in December after 26 years. Cortez served as the assistant court administrator for 10 years.
“He was a fabulous mentor to me,” she told The Gazette recently. “He really took an interest in my professional development, and I felt he was helping prepare me for the next step in my career. I can’t say enough good things about him. He helped me with getting my certifications from the National Center for State Courts.”
The National Center for State Courts is an independent nonprofit court improvement organization that provides research, professional development, education and consulting to courts.
Cortez oversees the day-to-day operations and develops objectives, policies and procedures to improve the efficiency of court operations in the 6th District counties — Linn, Johnson, Iowa, Benton, Tama and Jones. She is the main supervisor of the courthouse. She also works with outside partners — law enforcement — who might have scheduling issues with jail inmates in Linn and the other counties who have to appear in court.
Cortez also is the liaison between the courts and the county, which is responsible for maintenance of the building. In her position as assistant court administrator, she gained firsthand experience in crisis management as she oversaw many of the renovations and repairs of the courthouse after the 2008 flood. The work wasn’t completed until 2012.
In 2014, she and Edmondson were organizing the big transition of the courts going paperless. There was a new system to learn, and all the thousands of documents had to be scanned in. An overall workflow system was set up for the districts, but each district is different, so those had to be customized. Cortez was on the statewide technology committee that helped create those systems.
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Chief Judge Patrick Grady, who selected Cortez from several candidates, said she is a “gifted team builder” who is admired by her co-workers and respected by judges and the state court administrative staff in Des Moines.
“Kellee is a positive communicator who is open to suggestions from others who are impacted by a particular policy,” Grady said. “She is an innovative thinker, which has helped us all develop better habits of case management that enhance our ability to handle heavy cases in an efficient and fair manner. The 6th District will continue to be in good hands for a number of years.”
Judge Ian Thornhill said the selection of Cortez for the job was a “great choice.” She has a unique background being on the front lines as a court reporter and learning the day-to-day scheduling as the assistant to make a “seamless transition.”
“She has an open and engaging personality and will be more hands-on in the role,” Thornhill noted. “It will probably take her six months to a year for her to make her own way, but she will be great, and she will continue to advocate for us in Des Moines.”
Cortez told The Gazette in 2009 that she enjoyed the anonymity as a court reporter, never saying a word but intently listening to others.
Looking back on that time, she said it was the way she felt, but she was always fascinated by how “each cog worked together” to make a functioning court and eventually wanted to help improve those processes.
“Sometimes, I miss those days,” Cortez said, laughing. “I can’t hide behind a judge now. I became more comfortable after I got a good grasp of the court functions and how to make those improvements.”
Her transition, in part, was because of the uncertainty surrounding the court reporting profession back in 2010 when she applied for the assistant position.
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All the districts cut court reporters because of lack of funding, and people stopped going into court reporting programs.
Each district had fewer court reporters back then, and the ones who kept their jobs were running between court hearings, depositions and trials. Many trials and hearings got bumped because there were not enough court reporters for judges.
Now, after her tenure under Edmondson and several certifications and other professional development and training, Cortez said she is prepared to improve the operations. Of course, Grady has the ultimate authority, but he relies on Cortez to lay the groundwork, do the research and suggest improvements for the system.
“No two days are alike,” Cortez said. “I might be working on a change of venue in a murder case — coordinating with other districts where the judge wants the trial moved, which takes some work, or working on personnel matters with human resources and then later working on the judicial rotational schedules because all the judges go out to the other counties on a monthly basis.”
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