DES MOINES -- “Ominous signs” are appearing in Iowa’s judicial system as insufficient resources “tear at the very fabric of our operation and mission,” Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady warned lawmakers Wednesday.
The court system employs 182 fewer people than a year ago and is operating with 11 judgeships vacant and 115 “essential” positions unfilled, Cady said in his eighth Condition of the Judiciary address to a joint session of the Iowa Senate and House.
The lack of resources is approaching a crisis, Cady told reporters later.
“It’s a problem that seeps deeper and deeper into our process of justice,” he said. “Ultimately, as I said, it’s difficult to think it’s actually affecting the quality of justice.”
Cady’s news was not all bad, however, as he reported that last year:
• Juvenile diversion programs diverted more than 10,000 children from the formal court system avoiding more than $14 million in costs to other parts of the state budget.
• Family treatment courts served more than 300 families generating a cost avoidance of more than $3.5 million in the human services budget.
• Other specialty courts avoided $4 million in costs.
• The courts collected $146 million for the state general fund.
Overall, Cady said, the return on investment in the state court system was more than $178 million. The Legislature’s investment in the judiciary “benefits all taxpayers.”
While it’s nice to report on those successes, Cady said he was obligated to deliver the bad news that because of the lack of resources – both money and personnel –deficiencies in the judicial process is growing, “as are the consequences.”
Although he did not mention in his remarks to the Legislature, Cady is asking for a 7.9 percent increase of $13.8 million for the court system. That would bring the budget to $189.5 million in the coming fiscal year.
Before then, however, the courts face a $1.9 million deappropriation for the remainder of the budget year that ends June 30 if lawmakers follow Gov. Kim Reynolds’ recommendation to cut the courts’ current year spending by $1.9 million from its $175 million budget.
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Already, Cady said, the courts have been forced to walk back from their commitment that all cases would be timely tried on the date set without delay, Cady said. The 10 percent reduction in courts personnel means “we do not have enough people to do the work,” Cady said.
“We try to minimize the impact on Iowans first,” he said, but wouldn’t rule out furloughing employees or other options, such as reduced hours at court offices.
“Iowans are losing access to justice,” the chief justice said, adding that fewer court services are being delivered in rural areas than in urban areas.
Reynolds acknowledged the budget difficulties, but sees opportunities to work with the Judicial Branch.
“It’s a tough budget year,” she said, referring to the $35 million shortfall the state faces. “We are dealing with what we have to deal with. We’re all going to work together. We’re going to get through this.
“We’re going to make sure they can continue providing the justice that Iowans expect,” she said.
One approach, Reynolds said, is to co-locate specialty courts at the crisis centers that have been proposed to deal with mental health issues.
In that vein, Cady called for expanding and retooling family treatment and drug courts to address the opioid crisis, Cady said.
He also raised concerns about protecting the court systems’ 20 million documents containing sensitive personal information, corporate data and intellectual property. Last year, the paperless electronic filing unexpectedly failed for a week.
“The problem with disruptive technology is not the change it brings,” he said, noting the savings from technological updates in the court system, “but the failure of existing systems to recognize it and adapt.”
Compounding the challenges facing the courts, is that Cady expects as many as 12 district court judges to retire this year and fewer private practice attorneys are seeking judgeships. Civil case filings continue to decline as lawyers choose to pursue alternative means to resolve disputes.
“I am concerned all of this causes us to lose our focus on the quality and promise of justice,” Cady said. “This is not what the process of justice should be. These deficiencies are not what Iowans expect or deserve. They are growing, as are the consequences.”