Chief justice gets big applause from lawmakers, but will it translate into more funding for the courts?

By: Rox Laird on January 11th, 2017

Longtime observers of annual Condition of the Judiciary addresses to the General Assembly might agree Chief Justice Mark Cady got a record number of standing ovations Wednesday morning. The question is whether all that hearty applause will translate into more fiscal resources for Iowa’s courts.

Cady went to the lawmakers with a simple and direct message: Iowa’s courts need more money. The Judicial Branch is asking legislators for a 6.9 percent increase for fiscal year 2018, which will keep all 99 courthouses open full time, preserve new specialty courts and give Iowa judges a pay raise.

It will be a tough sell.

The court system is already operating on a bare-bones budget that resulted in a hiring freeze and belt tightening, which Cady told lawmakers has caused a “disruption in court services” at courthouses across the state.

Now the courts face the prospect of another $7.7 million cut between now and June 30 proposed by Gov. Terry Branstad in response to a shortfall in state tax revenues. That’s more than 4 percent of the $182 million operating budget.

Still, Cady made a pitch Wednesday for more resources in terms a business owner would appreciate: a return on investment.

For its $182 million investment in the court system, Iowa gets a return of $153 million in collected fines and fees. And another $23 million is saved on prisons and other state services thanks to court programs that divert juveniles and drug offenders from prison and help keep families together.

Looking beyond the short-term state revenue gloom, Cady’s message to lawmakers offered a long range vision what Iowa’s courts could be if they only had the resources. That vision is captured in this excerpt:

“Our vision is not only to administer justice, it is to advance justice. Our vision is not just to reduce the number of young adults going to prison, it is to expand juvenile diversion courts to every county. Our vision is not just to operate 47 specialty courts, it is to operate as many specialty courts as Iowans call for to meet all their needs. Our vision is not just to leverage advances in technology, it is specifically to improve and upgrade our jury management system for the 21st century, to build an online conservatorship reporting system with auditing safeguards that will protect the assets of our most vulnerable populations, and to build disaster recovery protection for our first-in-the-nation online court filing system. Our vision is not just to recognize judges and magistrates for their work, it is to provide them with regular salary increases in line with the practices followed by other successful businesses. Our vision is not just to increase courthouse security, it is to ensure the safety of all Iowans in every courthouse and public building. Our vision is not just to continue constructive approaches to reducing implicit bias and racial disparity, it is to eliminate them — it is to find ways for all Iowans to be treated justly, fairly, and equally under law.”

That last sentence prompted the longest standing ovation, and the applause and whoops from the assembled lawmakers and others in the Iowa House chamber nearly drowned out the chief justices’ words. It will be seen in the coming weeks of the 2017 session how long that applause rings in legislators’ ears as they prepare budgets for all three branches of government.

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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