Senate GOP's budget cuts could close more than 30 county courthouses

More than 30 county courthouses could close if the Iowa legislature enacts Senate Republicans’ plan to cut more than $4.8 million from the judicial branch for the remainder of the 2018 fiscal year, State Court Administrator Todd Nuccio warned on January 25. Iowa Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Charles Schneider proposed some $52 million in mid-year budget cuts the same day; within hours, his committee approved the bill along party lines.

Earlier this month, Governor Kim Reynolds proposed about $27 million in spending cuts before the end of the fiscal year, of which about $1.6 million would come from the judicial branch. House Republicans have not yet released a plan for mid-year cuts. In January 2017, leaders from both chambers worked out a deal behind closed doors before publishing a bill. But House Speaker Linda Upmeyer “said Thursday the House was still working on its plan for spending reductions,” the Des Moines Register’s William Petroski and Brianne Pfannenstiel reported.

In his open letter, Court Administrator Nuccio noted that the Senate plan would reduce the Justice System Appropriations by $7.7 million, of which $4,835,445 (63 percent) would come from the judicial branch itself.

The overall de-appropriation amount being recommended is $50MM. As such, the Judicial Branch is being asked to absorb a little more than 9% of the reduction for all of state government. Put in another context, the Judicial Branch only receives 2.5% of the overall state general fund. That means the Judicial Branch portion of the reduction is over 350% larger than the proportion of the funding we receive. […]

Since 96% of the Judicial Branch budget is comprised of personnel costs, options are limited for making cuts. Should the $4.8MM cut come to reality, we are left with no other choice than to close courthouses and eliminate personnel branch-wide. As such, we are projecting the closure of over 30 county courthouses proportionately distributed across our eight judicial districts.

During his January 10 speech on the Condition of the Judiciary, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady told state lawmakers that persistent underfunding of the court system was “beginning to tear at the very fabric of our operation and mission.” Excerpts:

While it is nice to report on our progress towards justice for all, I feel obligated to also report on our shortcomings. These deficiencies are not what Iowans expect or deserve. They are growing in number, as are consequences.

We must remember that justice ultimately comes from the people who work in the justice system. Today, the court system employs 182 fewer people than authorized just one year ago. This is a 10% reduction in workforce. As expected, efficiencies gained through the integration of technology into our operations account for some of the workforce reduction. But, we are currently operating with 115 essential positions unfilled, and this number is growing. This means there are fewer judges, fewer court reporters, fewer case schedulers, and fewer juvenile court officers. It means there is a daily struggle to coordinate and deliver services. It means Iowans are losing access to justice. Two years ago, I told you about our commitment that all cases would be timely tried on the date set for trial, without delay. We have been forced to walk back from this pledge because we do not have enough people to do the work to keep it. So, the delays we were rapidly eliminating from the process of justice are returning and affecting your constituents who need our services to resolve their disputes. But that is not all. Today, Iowans who reside in rural areas are receiving fewer court services than the Iowans in urban areas. Today, a freeze on new specialty courts exists so that the critical services provided by a specialty court in one county are not being provided in another county. Today, I am concerned all of this causes us to lose our focus on the quality and promise of justice. This is not what the process of justice should be.

In past years, I have reported on the benefits that technology is giving Iowa’s court system and its process of justice, including our paperless filing system. Yet, last October, the technology that supports the electronic filing system failed unexpectedly and could not be used for a week. This crippling situation resulted from an inadequate backup system, which we know needs to be upgraded with better technology to prevent a future system outage. The outage meant Iowans were unable to file or access court documents, and judges were unable to access and work on court files. This must not happen again. This is not what the process of justice should be.

These shortcomings, and others, are mostly the result of insufficient resources, and the shortcomings continue to be revealed in new ways every day. They are also beginning to tear at the very fabric of our operation and mission. Ominous signs are appearing. This year, more judges will be retiring than in previous years. For the last decade now, fewer and fewer private practice attorneys are seeking a career on the bench. Civil case filings continue to decline, as lawyers and litigants choose to pursue alternative means to resolve disputes. This is not what the process of justice should be.

Overall, the writing is on the wall. Our shortcomings and their consequences have not gone unnoticed in the most recent ratings of the 50 state court systems from the United States Chamber of Commerce. In past years I have spoken of these ratings to illustrate our success. This last year, Iowa fell from its proud position as the fourth best court system in the nation to thirteenth place. This is not the direction a justice system should be headed. This is not how our process of justice should be seen.

Schneider, who is an attorney, did not comment on how his bill would affect the court system when speaking to the Des Moines Register on January 25. He defended his plan, which

would leave the state’s general fund with a balance of about $35 million at the end of the state’s fiscal year.

“We wanted to be at a place where we felt comfortable that we wouldn’t have to come back and do another de-appropriation or borrow money from the cash reserve fund or economic emergency fund” at the end of the fiscal year, Schneider said. He added that the budget adjustments meet the spirit of Iowa’s 99 percent limit on state spending.

Final note: Nuccio’s letter refers to Senate Study Bill 3089. The spending cut bill was renamed Senate File 2117 after clearing the Appropriations Committee.

UPDATE: The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported on February 3 on opposition to the proposed cuts.

“Without judges, clerks and court reporters available, it takes a long time to get things litigated,” said Michael Walton, 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 that “‘justice delayed is justice denied’ applies to victims in the state, too,” he said. […]
Stephen Eckley, president of the Iowa State Bar Association, wrote to 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,” he wrote. […]

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,” she said. “I sure hope not, because that would seem like not trying very hard.”

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