The public doesn’t usually focus on the timeliness of a court’s decision, because the public isn’t usually waiting for a decision. But the litigants are, and for them, timeliness is almost as important as the outcome. Being in litigation is, for most, an unusual and stressful experience. And as with most stressful experiences, we want it to be over. We want to know the outcome–good or bad–and move on with our lives. As famed judge Learned Hand aptly put it: “I must say that, as a litigant, I should dread a lawsuit beyond almost anything short of sickness and death.”
With that in mind, the Iowa Supreme Court is making timeliness a priority. Before the 2010 retention elections, the court had a backlog of cases, and the removal of three justices made that worse. It wasn’t unusual to wait over a year for a decision after oral argument, and some cases sat on the Court’s docket for over two years.
That’s no longer the case. Starting in the fall of 2011, the Court instituted a new term system that closely mirrors the U.S. Supreme Court’s calendar. The justices hear oral arguments from September to April, with the goal of issuing a decision in every case before the next term begins in September.
So far, the justices are achieving their goal. In July 2012, the Iowa Supreme Court had completely cleaned its docket, save one case that was resubmitted for the next term. And this year, the Court issued decisions in all argued cases by the end of August. On average, the Court issues a decision 112 days after final submission (which is usually triggered by oral argument). But even that figure understates the Court’s efficiency. There is a small subset of cases that, because of their complexity or other unusual factors, skew the average, which means that the median might give a better picture of the Court’s timeliness. That’s 87 days between final submission and decision, which is relatively fast.
The Court is even faster when the situation calls for it. In February, the Court issued a decision in In re Whalen–a case about a burial location– just 29 days after the scheduled oral argument. And the Court has made it a priority to respond quickly to certified questions from federal district courts. Sometimes issues of state law come up in federal cases, and when the state law is unclear, federal courts can certify the question to the state’s highest court, asking it to weigh in. This certification process stops the federal case until the state court rules, which can present problems for the litigants if the state court takes a long time to answer the certified question. Since the Iowa Supreme Court instituted its term system, it has decided two cases involving certified questions; it issued decisions in those cases 22 and 23 days after oral argument.
That hasn’t gone unnoticed. Last year, based in part on the Iowa Supreme Court’s new focus on timeliness, federal district court judge James Gritzner certified a question to the Iowa Supreme Court involving the Iowa Civil Rights Act. (That case later settled before oral argument.) And in July of this year, federal district court judge Stephanie Rose certified another employment-law question to the Iowa Supreme Court, noting in her decision that “recent history has shown that the Iowa Supreme Court is able to answer certified questions fairly quickly.”
Considering that the Court has sped up its decision-making in new cases while also clearing out a backlog, they have accomplished a lot. You can bet that litigants and lawyers in other states are jealous.