Let Iowa courts consolidate

Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Marsha Ternus had bad news about the condition of the judiciary when she addressed the Iowa legislature yesterday.

Since the 2002 fiscal year, she noted, staffing levels have been reduce[d] by 17 percent. In just the last year, staff was cut by 11 percent. In fact, the state’s courts now operate with a smaller workforce than it had in 1987, the year the state assumed full funding for the court system. The number of serious and time-consuming cases before the court, however, have increased by 66 percent.

Ternus also argued that budget shortfalls have adversely impacted the Judicial Branch more than any other aspect or agency in government.

“Unlike many state agencies and the regents, the judicial branch has no pass-through funds, no programs to cut and no reserves to tap. Nearly all our operating costs are for people – employees and judges who are the life blood of the court system – so when we cut our budget, we must cut our workforce.”

Ternus warned of “assembly line justice” and “de facto consolidation” of courts if state legislators do not at least maintain current levels of funding. (Click here for a pdf file containing the full text of Ternus’ speech.)

While the judiciary has faced several rounds of budget cuts, demand for court services has increased because of the recession. For example, during the past two years mortgage foreclosures have increased by 34 percent in Iowa, cases relating to domestic violence protection have increased 15 percent, and “juvenile commitments for drug or mental-health issues” have risen by 76 percent.

Current state law requires courts to operate in all of Iowa’s 99 counties. That made sense when it could take the better part of a day for people to travel to their county courthouse, but it’s not an efficient use of resources now. I am with the Des Moines Register’s editorial board: state legislators need to either allocate enough funding for the judicial system we have, or amend the law to allow some consolidation of courthouses. The latter would run up against stiff resistance in the Iowa House and Senate because of the likely impact on some small county-seat towns. But it’s wrong to let civil and criminal court services degrade across the state. If budget constraints demand efficiency measures in other branches of government, let the judiciary make the best use of available funds by consolidating where necessary.

UPDATE: Governor Chet Culver told the Iowa Independent that he shares the concerns Ternus raised and does not support any further funding cuts for the judiciary.

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