East Iowa officials say tight funding hampers court system

Long trial delays among the outcomes

Vanessa Miller
Published: December 26 2012 | 6:40 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 3:46 am in
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Nearly a year after Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady pleaded for more funding for state courts, Eastern Iowa attorneys say the system still is operating with too few resources that cause costly delays and, in some cases, hamper the justice process.

The budget woes have had a broad impact, limiting clerk hours, cutting court reporters, overbooking courtrooms and spreading judges too thin.

In Johnson County, officials say, limited resources have caused lengthy trial delays. In Linn County, officials say, the rising cost of litigation has resulted in more plea agreements.

“Litigation has become increasing expensive, complicated, protracted and unpredictable,” Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden wrote in an email to The Gazette. “With fewer judicial resources to handle increasing case filings, there is more pressure to settle than to take them all the way to trial.”

The number of criminal jury trials in both Linn and Johnson counties is declining, according to statistics available through the middle of December. Prosecutors in Johnson County litigated just eight criminal jury trials in 2012, compared with 15 in 2011 and 18 in 2010.

Linn County had 10 criminal jury trials this year compared with 11 in 2011 and 24 in 2010. Vander Sanden said that with limited resources, settlements are tempting in that they also eliminate the risk of appeal.

“Civil case settlements and plea agreements in criminal cases allow the parties to expedite a fair resolution that provides certainty in the outcome and mitigates the cost of expensive litigation,” he said.

For those cases that do make it to trial, Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness said there are new challenges in today’s system that didn’t always exist. For example, long delays can make it hard to coordinate witness interviews and court appearances.

“For any case you worry about getting witnesses, and (the delays) certainly hurt their memory,” Lyness said. “You put things off for years, and it hurts their ability to remember.”

One of the county’s trials this year was postponed so many times it eventually interfered with the victim’s plans to study abroad for six months, Lyness said.

While attorney conflicts and deadlines also can cause delays, Lyness said, many times the postponements have to do with resources, “whether it was a courtroom or a judge or a court reporter.”

Iowa’s judicial branch lost 11 percent of its workforce in the state’s 2009-10 budget cuts, leaving it with fewer employees than it had 24 years ago. The judiciary received a bump in funding in the 2013 budget year, but many of those employed in the judiciary say the system is still lagging in resources.

Mark Thompson, a criminal defense attorney in Iowa City, said most of his cases involve students charged with drug, alcohol or false identification violations. Although his cases haven’t experienced extensive delays, he said, he has spent more time waiting in the courtroom while a court reporter finishes in another case.

“Not having a court reporter is frustrating,” he said. “It’s now common practice that everyone is ready, and we are cued up waiting for a court reporter because she’s overworked.”

Thompson said he knows other attorneys have had to reschedule entire trials because of limited resources, and he said the judicial system “is really one of the last things you should underfund.”

“It’s one of the absolute pillars of our society – that the courts are available to people,” he said.

Thompson said most practicing attorneys have gotten used to the limited hours in clerks of court offices, and he said he’s excited for the state’s impending move to an electronic filing system.

“I’m looking forward to getting online so we don’t have to wait to file it when the office is open,” he said.

By the end of the year, court documents in the the 6th Judicial District – Linn and Johnson counties included – are expected to be file electronically through a new program being implanted in stages statewide. The process aims to eliminate paper in the judicial process in Iowa, helping to cut costs while the number of judicial cases and filings in Iowa is increasing.

State officials say the move to electronic filing will allow the court system to do more work with fewer people. But, local attorneys say, the judiciary still needs to have the resources to hire more employees to keep up with the workload.

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