Iowa Public Television


State of the Judiciary 2012

posted on January 11, 2012

One year after the Iowa Supreme Court weathered one of its most tumultuous periods, losing three justices in a retention vote, Chief Justice Mark Cady makes the court's annual statement outlining the challenges and path forward for the state's judicial branch.  From a joint session of the Iowa General Assembly at the State Capitol in Des Moines, this is the 2012 State of the Judiciary.

Kibbie: It is my distinct pleasure to introduce to you the Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court Mark S. Cady to deliver the State of the Judiciary message. 

Cady: Thank you, Mr. President. (applause)

Cady: Thank you.  Thank you again.  (applause)  Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, members of the General Assembly, Governor Branstad, Lieutenant Governor Reynolds, state officials, my colleagues, distinguished guests, family and friends, thank you for this opportunity to address this convention of the 84th General Assembly on the condition of our Iowa judiciary.  We come together this morning in this historic chamber not only for an opportunity to consider the state of the judiciary but also, perhaps of equal importance, to simply take this moment to gather a better understanding of all we share in common.  To reflect on what inspires each one of us to serve in public office is what inspires all of us to serve Iowans and the state of Iowa.  To reflect in the presence of this room our shared sense of purpose pursued with our shared sense of honor, respect and commitment to do our best in whatever branch of government we do our work.  And to reflect on the simple truth that we all want what is best for Iowa and that we all serve the people of Iowa with the timeless hope of each generation that our efforts today will lead to a better tomorrow. But today, today is just not a time to recall our aspiration, it is a time for us to identify how each branch of government can contribute to rebuilding our economy and creating the way of life in Iowa that will ensure our prosperity and our children's prosperity. 

So, let me begin with some important observations about what our courts do to build a better tomorrow and what our Iowa courts do and have been doing to assure this better tomorrow is Iowa's tomorrow.  I will then discuss an obstacle that we face in doing our important work and how we can overcome this obstacle together to reach that better tomorrow.  I might add that the numbers, the statistics and the details that supplement my remarks this morning will be included in a packet of information that will be disseminated to you today and will also be available at our reception which I invite everyone to attend down in our historic Supreme Court courtroom following the close of this joint convention.

A strong court system can play an important role, if not become the real catalyst, in achieving economic prosperity in Iowa.  This proposition is just not my perception, it is supported by sound economic studies.  A few years ago the World Bank conducted a study to determine what accounts for the success and the wealth of a nation.  This study found that the most important ingredient to the economic success and strength of a country by far is the presence of a stable court system that applied the rule of law fairly and impartially.  Fair, efficient, fully functioning courts provide businesses with the necessary confidence to invest in an area or to expand business in to an area by assuring that their investment will be fully protected under the rule of law in the same way individual rights are maintained.  As explained by the lead economist in this study, the confidence needed to promote investment comes from the efficiency of a legal system, how many days it takes to get to trial, how many days it takes to get a decision once you've had a trial, the lack of corruption, the degree of transparency, the whole set of issues that goes into what is called the rule of law.  The business relationships and commerce needed to grow an economy must operate within an environment of the rule of law and must have confidence in the legal system to provide that environment.

This view is also supported by a 2010 study conducted by the United States Chamber of Commerce.  This study surveyed 1500 senior litigators at America's largest corporate employers.  Two-thirds of these employers agreed that the litigation environment in the state impacts the important business decisions of their company such as where to locate and where to do business.  Businesses need and want a level playing field where the rules are fairly enforced and the gains achieved by their efforts are fully protected. 

Finally, the important role of our courts in fostering economic development of a state is actually, is actually a concept recognized by our forefathers very early in our history.  The records from our constitutional convention in 1857 reveal that our first leaders spoke of the need for a well-maintained court system to properly guard both the lives of the waves of people that were entering the state at the time and the resources that these people, our forefathers, were investing in this state.  Jonathan Hall of Burlington who served both in this body and on our Supreme Court reminded his colleagues to never, in his words, "forget", that the system of justice is what protects the property of this state.

At the same time, we all understand that a vibrant economy also depends on the many qualities of life that we share in Iowa.  While all Iowans contribute to our quality of life, the work of the courts has always played a special and direct role in providing a stable and safe environment for those who work and live in this state.  Every community in this state depends on our courts and our judicial branch employees to addresses and stop juvenile delinquency, to handle criminal charges, impose sentences on convicted criminal offenders.  Each year our judges and our magistrates, with the help of their staff, dispose of thousands upon thousands of criminal cases and issue thousands of protective orders and no contact orders to help shield victims from further harm.  Additionally, the quality of life compatible with economic prosperity requires opportunities for our young people.  Our children are our future and the work of the court is often the only dependable bridge to the future of opportunity for many of these children. 

Everyday Iowa courts make important decisions affecting the lives of abused and neglected children.  These children depend on our courts for timely placements and safe and stable homes.  Our courts also work to prevent and address juvenile delinquency.  Last year our juvenile probation officers worked with nearly 22,000 troubled children and teens to confront their problems, change their behavior and help them forge better lives for themselves.  That is the equivalent of two full classrooms of children entering our court system every day in our state.  Most of these children need supervision, they need treatment and they need services to address their underlying problems and needs.  But this work is just not essential to children, it has the potential for saving this state billions of dollars over time.  Researchers at the National Center for Juvenile Justice calculated that the lifelong taxpayer expenditure for every offender who enters our prison system is $2 million.  Another recent study concludes that each juvenile who becomes a chronic offender ends up costing taxpayers between $4.2 million and $7.2 million.  When we, when we are able to help our young people when it really counts the benefits are shared by all.  (applause)

So, let me turn to the condition of Iowa's judiciary and examine the judicial system we have in Iowa today.  My assessment begins with the most fundamental quality of justice -- fair and impartial judges.  I am pleased to report that fair and impartial justice continues to be the hallmark of Iowa's court system.  One measure of this quality is the annual survey conducted by the United States Chamber of Commerce which has consistently ranked Iowa judges as the most fair and impartial in the country.  And last year was no exception.  This ranking, this ranking allows Iowa to be viewed as having one of the top court systems in the nation. 

Similarly, I can report to you that Iowa courts continue to be recognized nationally for their transparency which is one of the factors, of course, that helps develop confidence in courts and helps develop a prosperous economy.  I can further report to you that we have fulfilled our promise made to you last year to become even more open and more visible.  Because our courts belong to the people it is important our courts are open to the people.  In Iowa our courtrooms are not only open to the public but we have gone to great lengths to take our courts to the people.  In addition to our nationally recognized program for bringing cameras into our courtroom we have online court dockets, streaming of Iowa Supreme Court oral arguments and an award-winning judicial site filled with helpful, easy-to-find information about all aspects of our courts. 

Consistent with our efforts to bring the courts to the people, the Iowa Supreme Court last year held oral arguments outside Des Moines.  We held arguments in Cedar Rapids, in Mason City and in Carroll.  And in each trip, each justice visited local schools, spoke to government classes in conjunction with an evening session of court.  And I, I can not help but think that those communities gained a better appreciation for the role of the courts in our society.  After the Mason City session the father of a young Mennonite boy at the center of one of the cases waited respectfully for an opportunity to greet me.  When he did, he simply extended his hand and he said this about the court session that he had just witnessed -- "I just wanted you to know that it seems like a very honest thing."  We will continue to display this honest thing in other communities this year. 

Innovations such as cameras in the courtroom and taking the courts to the people are examples of efficient, forward-thinking efforts that we will continue to undertake to better serve all Iowans.  And before I leave this subject of open and visible courts let me add that I will again maintain office hours in the Capitol Building every Monday morning while you are in session just as I did last year.  And if for some reason I am not here another justice will be present to meet with you.  Additionally, my door to my office across the street is always open to you.

We are also constantly searching for ways to improve our procedures and our efficiencies to meet the problems and demands of this complex world in which we live, to prepare ourselves for the challenges of the future and to contribute effectively to Iowa's prosperity and quality of life.  And this last year, again, was no exception.  For over a year now an Iowa Supreme Court task force has been studying ways to make our court system as responsive as possible in the lives of Iowans and to operate, and in the operation of businesses and commerce.  Justice Daryl Hecht and 83 other committed Iowa business leaders, court users, judges, attorneys, have been studying and evaluating new ways of civil justice reform in Iowa in order to build a new court model to provide even more confidence in the business environment of this state.  Their report will be unveiled next month and could become the blueprint of a new civil justice system in Iowa comprised of special business courts, special litigation tracks for low-cost and prompt resolution of litigated matters and alternative dispute resolution methods now desired by many.  These processes as well as others will help make our court system as relevant and attractive to users as possible and provide an opportunity to make our court system even more attractive to economic development.

Last year also saw great strides in the transition of our court system into a paperless operation and this too will brighten Iowa's economic future.  As you know, this operation is the electronic document management system, or the EDMS.  EDMS is designed to receive and store electronic documents.  These electronic documents and filings will allow more and more court users access to court records 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Parties can view their court documents, they can review the court docket in their cases from their office or from their home computer.  This system, when it is completed, will provide efficiencies never before seen in our court system or any court system outside of Iowa.  It will also provide efficiencies that will benefit both public and private court users.  We are building a national template, a model for the nation.  Importantly, EDMS will allow, more effectively allow our workload to be dealt with more effectively and to maintain, to maintain the importance of a courthouse in every county.  Currently, EDMS operates in four counties ... (applause)

Our EDMS currently operates in four counties and we are in the process of expanding to more counties as well as our appellate courts.  We have also sought to improve our judicial system by developing specialty criminal courts that target the underlying problems that bring people into court in an effort to craft a better long-lasting solution.  Crime for too many Iowans is the result of drug addition and we now operate 28 drug courts in 19 counties in Iowa to better address these addictions.  The judges who staff these courts operate closely with attorneys and substance abuse treatment providers and others to monitor the progress to a variety of effective treatment methods.  And last year hundreds of Iowans likely avoided prison due to these drug courts and have been redirected towards a better future. 

Family drug courts have also been implemented and have been found to be successful in reuniting families torn apart by child abuse and neglect on account of meth addicted parents.  In Wapello County, for example, Judge Bill Owens sets aside two afternoons per month to operate his family court.  Ottumwa Attorney Mary Baird Krafka made this observation about the outcomes she has witnessed in family drug court, "It is nothing short of exciting to observe month by month the improved appearance and demeanor of these parents."  These specialty courts have shown what a court system can do when it has the time and the resources to do its best work.  We continue to make tremendous strides in our efforts to help abused and neglected children as well as troubled youths.

As you know, we have taken numerous steps and implemented many reforms to strengthen court oversight of child welfare cases so they can expeditiously find permanent loving homes for abused and neglected children, which, of course, ultimately improves their prospects for better lives and a future full of promises.  These reforms have continue to produce the results that we had hoped.  In addition, our juvenile court officers have found new approaches to addressing juvenile crime.  They are now using evidence-based risk and needs assessment tools to enable juvenile court officers to distinguish between low, moderate and high risk youths and to better identify the underlying problems and needs of each teen.  So, overall Iowa courts are fulfilling the mission they have been given.  We live in a state that has gained a national reputation for having a very good court system.  Unfortunately, the Iowa court system is facing a mounting problem.  We have identified this concern to you before in the past, but let me explain what it means today.

The successes in this past year and those over the last decade have primarily been the result of two factors.  First, is that we have made many innovations, many improvements and have found that many efficiencies can be put into place to do our work.  Yet, by far, our successes are the result of the dedicated and extraordinary work of our people.  We are 1753 people who believe in the courts and the work of the courts.  Yet, while we have faced budget cuts year after year resulting in a workforce smaller than we had 24 years ago, our workload has increased dramatically.  During this 24 year period our workload has increased through the number of filings, excluding simple misdemeanors and traffic violations, 50%.  During the same time the Iowa Code has increased in its size by 79%.  Yet, a recent report of the Legislative Service Agency of this state revealed that since 2003 we have cut our full-time workforce 16.5% while the workforce in state government as a whole has grown 1.6%. 

Now, I make this observation not to complain but to primarily show that our successes are truly the result of the very devoted people who work in the court system.  However, I am beginning to see that these successes can not be sustained because, quite simply, I am not sure that our people can continue to carry all the weight they have been asked to shoulder.  Please understand, we appreciate very much the budget constraints that you have faced and we are grateful for the past support that you have given us. In turn, we have tried to operate our courts very efficiently and we have spent our funds wisely to produce good results.  All of us in the judicial branch have put the system of justice first and this has made it better.  But the months and months of cuts have turned to years and years of cuts and those years have now stretched a decade.  The spirit that inspires us to do so well is challenged and too often we are forced to operate in ways that we do not want to operate because we know, we know that to do so is not good for Iowans.  Not only does this cause problems for Iowans but is undermines the public confidence in the reliability in our justice system and hinders the state's objective in achieving the goal of a vibrant economy.

Right now 33 of our 100 clerks' offices operate on a part-time basis because they do not have enough employees to operate full-time.  These closures hinder Iowans seeking to initiate emergency mental health or commitment, substance abuse commitments or seeking civil, protective orders for domestic abuse.  They have also slowed down the processing of all of our cases as well as liens, garnishments, warrants, even child support checks.  Closures have caused the public to lose confidence in courts.  Cuts in other staff components such as court reporters, case schedulers, court attendants, law clerks and others have made things worse, frustrating us and causing problems for many Iowans.  Litigants must wait longer before they have their day in court and even when the trial date arrives there's no guarantee that it will proceed as scheduled.  We are simply experiencing too many instances when people seeking domestic abuse protective orders, for example, must wait hours on end for a court reporter to become available for the court proceeding.  Too many times inadequate staffing levels have forced us to have to reschedule custody disputes and parents and children have been forced to wait.  Complex civil trials have been cancelled at the last minute because judges or other personnel were not available to staff the courtroom.  Even after the trials and hearings occur, litigants must wait longer for rulings because judges lack appropriate support staff.  The resulting stress and strain experienced by our people over the past decade of cuts has not only been observed by me, it has been observed by each member of our Iowa Supreme Court as they have traveled to the many courthouses across Iowa this year to visit with court staff.  It has been observed by others as well.  And while not voiced as a, not voiced by our people as a complaint, it is clearly visible on their face.  They worry, they simply worry about not being able to provide the help that they need that they know Iowans need. 

Now, I truly understand that funding is tight for everyone but there is little more that we can do to help sustain this court system without your help.  Ultimately, by constitutional design Iowans depend on you to provide the resources to support the justice system and today I respectfully ask you to extend your hand to help.  Today, Iowa's judicial branch operates on a budget of $154 million.  That is just about 2.5% of the total state budget.  At the same time we bring in about $146 million each year in fines and fees and the like.  So, in truth, everything we provide this state costs less than one-half of one percent of our total state budget.  We need just a fraction more to adequately fund and staff the judicial branch and I can assure you that it will be a fraction more that will make a world of difference.

Now, I must tell you, our budget this year is particularly fragile for another reason.  Unlike the past, status quo funding will not even allow us to limp through another year.  Without additional money the judicial branch has no means to absorb the additional costs of salary adjustments and will face another severe reduction in workload and more cuts in the hours of our clerks' offices to be open.  Fewer staff and more closed courthouses will cause greater delays and less access to justice.  In my view, these unwanted consequences would pierce the spirit of our devoted court employees and mark the start of a decline in our great state court system.

Not only will confidence in a reliable and efficient system be lost but an essential building block for economic growth will be in jeopardy.  By, in the end, in asking you to extend your hand I'm really just asking you to believe in the courts, believe in our courts.  While it has been important for me to inform you about the struggles of our people, just as it is important for them to know that I support them and I am deeply moved by all that they have done for this state, I simply ask you to believe, as we believe, in the work of our courts. Believe, as we believe, that with just a little more help our courts can truly help move this state into the future that it richly deserves.  Investing in the courts now will give all the people in our court system the tools that they need to do the job that they have devoted their lives to do and allow us to structure a court system to provide services that it was established to deliver.  Investing in the courts now will build a foundation for a vibrant economy through a transparent and responsive civil justice system that continues to be a model for our nation.  Investing in the courts now will enhance our court system to give our children and others in need the best opportunity for a productive life.  Investing in the courts now will allow us to do our best work to give Iowans its best future.  And, investing in the courts now will allow us to show the nation how three branches of government can work for the benefit of the people.  And investing in the courts now, just a fraction more, will show, will show future generations what believing in the courts, what believing in the courts now will do.

So, the state of the judiciary is just not in the hands of the courts, it is in your hands too.  This is the time, this is the time for us to work together as never before.  This is the time for us to begin rebuilding our Iowa economy and creating a new way of life that will ensure our prosperity and our children's prosperity.  And this is the time, this is the time for us to truly discover what our joint efforts can grow and produce for the bountiful future of this great state.  Thank you.  (applause)

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