Chief Justice: Judicial Branch Approaching a Crisis From Budget Cuts

Jan 10, 2018

The Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court Mark Cady Wednesday painted a worsening picture of the condition of the Iowa justice system, after years of declining or status quo budgets for the judicial branch.  

In his Condition of the Judiciary Address, Justice Cady said that insufficient resources are beginning to “tear at the fabric of the mission of the courts” to provide justice for all Iowans.  

The judicial branch workforce was cut this year by 10 percent and there are over 115 unfilled positions, including 11 district court judgeships.

Iowans are losing access to justice. -Chief Justice Mark Cady

“This means there are fewer judges, fewer court reporters, fewer case schedulers, and fewer juvenile court officers,” Cady said in his eighth Condition of the Judiciary address to a joint session of the House and Senate.  “It means there is a daily struggle to coordinate and deliver services.  

“It means Iowans are losing access to justice,” he added.  

The judicial branch budget of $175 million was smaller this year than it was two years ago.

Gov. Reynolds has recommended an additional cut of $1.9 million as part of a cutback in spending due to sluggish state tax receipts. 

Two years ago, the judicial branch announced a commitment that all cases would be tried on the date set for trial.

“We have been forced to walk back from this pledge because we do not have enough people to do the work to keep it,” Cady said. 

Cady added the state’s electronic filing system failed last year and was unusable for a week.  

Tipping point? I think we're awful close. -Rep. Gary Worthan

The judicial branch has asked the legislature for a nearly nine million dollar increase for next year.

Rep. Gary Worthan (R-Storm Lake) chairs the budget subcommittee that covers the courts.

He says the judicial branch is struggling.

“Crisis? No. Tipping point? I think we’re awful close,” Worthan said.  

Worthan said the courts, the Department of Corrections, and the Department of Public Safety have all reached critically low staffing levels.

"Over the last eight years, we've kind of pushed down with a 2-by-12 evenly over everybody,"  Worthan said.  “We need to set priorities.”

In addition to the 11 vacant district court judgeships,  and 11 more district court judges are planning to retire.

Cady calls that “ominous".   

He says fewer attorneys in private practice are seeking a career on the bench, and diminished resources are making a judicial branch career less attractive.       

“For a lot of lawyers, yes,” Cady said to reporters after the address.  “It affects morale.”

Recently the United States Chamber of Commerce reduced Iowa’s ranking among the 50 state court systems from fourth best in the country to 13th place.

“This is not the direction a justice system should be headed,” Cady said.

A spokeswoman for Governor Reynolds declined to comment on the ranking.

Follow Joyce Russell on Twitter:   @russell_ipr