DES MOINES — As she ponders the financial strain that has been placed on Iowa’s judicial system, Jennifer Olsen, president of the Scott County Board Association, recalls a father, who because of a lack of available judges was forced to wait nearly two years for a hearing to alter a custody agreement with his child.
“Because of a lack of funds to provide judges and other personnel, you’re bumped down the road. And unless you have an emergency, that child is waiting months, sometimes over a year,” said Olsen, who is an attorney in Davenport.
“Without judges and funding and personnel, it won’t happen in a timely way,” she said. “So you have a kid maybe staying in a crappy situation longer because our judicial system is not funded properly.”
Iowa’s judicial system is operating under significant financial distress because of inadequate state funding, according to individuals who work in the state’s court system or advocate for justice-related issues, and that is causing delayed justice and both financial and emotional harm to Iowans.
The problem could get worse depending upon the budget reduction plan state lawmakers and the governor devise in the coming weeks, those people said.
For a second consecutive year, the state is forced to make spending cuts because revenues fell short of projections.
For a second consecutive year, the state’s judicial system appears to be on the hook for some of those cuts.
“Without judges, clerks and court reporters available, it takes a long time to get things litigated,” said Michael Walton, Scott County Attorney and president of the Iowa County Attorneys Association. “Criminal cases and major cases that used to last probably on average about six months are right around a year now. That’s a long time for a victim to wait for some sort of a resolution to a case.
“(The adage) justice delayed is justice denied applies to victims in the state, too,” Walton said.
In the second half of the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2017, the judicial branch was tasked by lawmakers and then-Gov. Terry Branstad to trim $3 million.
More state budget cuts are on the way this year. Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed a $1.6 million cut for the judicial branch, while Senate Republicans’ plan calls for a $4.8 million cut.
House Republicans have not yet finalized their budget reduction numbers.
When Senate Republicans made public their proposal, the state judicial branch issued a statement suggesting at that level of cuts it would be forced to lay off staff — judges, clerks of court, court reporters and others — and close court services at nearly a third of the state’s courthouses.
Stephen Eckley, president of the Iowa State Bar Association, wrote to state senators that the damage from their proposed cuts “would be widespread, chaotic and expensive.”
“Quite simply, this would create total chaos in the judicial branch and with your constituents back home,” Eckley wrote.
The previous year’s spending cuts already led to a reduction in the number of judges, and more cuts could worsen the issue, which has a trickle-down impact on the entire system, court workers and justice advocates said.
An insufficient number of judges causes trials, hearings and other court meetings to be delayed. That creates emotional distress for individuals who must wait extra weeks and months for their day in court, and financial distress for individuals who have to add extra trips to the courthouse and billable hours with attorneys, court workers and advocates said.
“That can be really harmful to people that are involved. Sometimes they really can’t wait to get to trial before they’re going to be impacted in a meaningful and significant manner,” said Conrad Meis, an attorney in Algona and president of the Iowa Association for Justice.
If courthouse functions are forced to close, that would add financial burdens to individuals forced to travel to neighboring county courthouses and law enforcement agencies that would have to transport those charged with crimes, court workers and advocates said.
The added burdens can even make prosecuting attorney’s jobs more challenging because it can make it more difficult to convince witnesses to testify in trials that become delayed or moved to neighboring counties, Meis said.
“What it means is it makes it more difficult for people to have the opportunity to tell their story in court and have their day in court and say why they’re entitled to justice. That really becomes an issue,” Meis said.
Many court workers and justice advocates boiled down the issue to their belief that the budget cuts are undermining the state’s constitutionally mandated system of justice.
“Our state has nothing less than a constitutional responsibility to properly fund our judicial system. Ever-increasing budget cuts threaten the ability of all Iowans to access justice to protect their constitutional rights, as well as access for day-to-day criminal and civil matters,” Rita Bettis, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, wrote in an email to the bureau. “Cutting back on the process by which people can get access to fair and thorough justice is tragically short-sighted and threatens the ability of all Iowans to meaningfully protect civil and constitutional rights.”
State lawmakers and the governor in the coming weeks will finalize their plans to balance the state budget for the budget year that ends June 30 by cutting at least $36 million in spending.
Some lawmakers want to make even deeper cuts to avoid having to make another round of midyear cuts if revenue continues to under perform.
In his letter to senators, Eckley implored lawmakers to consider eliminating the judicial branch’s spending cuts altogether, or at the very least negotiating a spending cut closer to the $1.6 million recommended by Reynolds than the $4.8 million proposed by the Senate.
Reynolds, who became governor in 2017 and started her political career working in the Clarke County courthouse as county treasurer, said she thinks her budget plan accomplishes the dual goals of balancing the state’s books without causing a massive disruption to its judicial system. She acknowledged any cuts will impact Iowans’ access to justice.
“I think there’s ways that we can respect some of the things that are real important to (the courts) by really reducing the impact on Iowans and services,” Reynolds said.
Linda Upmeyer, the Republican Speaker of the Iowa House, said she questions whether the courts would need to enact layoffs and closures to the degree the judicial branch suggested in the wake of the Senate Republicans’ proposal.
“I doubt that they’re going to need to close 30 courthouses,” Upmeyer said. “I sure hope not, because that would seem like not trying very hard.”
While lawmakers and the governor work out the details of the budget adjustments, court officials are bracing for and lamenting the potential impact.
“The point is we’re creating barriers to justice,” Meis said. “There shouldn’t be barriers to justice for anybody in Iowa.”