DES MOINES — Judge James Blomgren retired in the fall of 2012, leaving an open spot in Iowa’s Eighth Judicial District.
The chance at a starting salary of more than $138,000 a year and to decide, instead of plead, cases would seem like a fair enticement to any number of lawyers doing business in the southeastern district.
Word spread quickly through the state’s legal circles. It was the latest proof the judiciary isn’t the career-topper it once was.
“One of the issues was the applicant pools were shrinking,” said David Boyd, administrator of the Iowa courts, who this year began work on an analysis of the number of judicial applicants in the state’s 14 judicial districts over the past decade. “The applicant pools were shrinking not only in terms of quantity but in quality, too.”
Judicial applications for court vacancies are down by about half of what they were 10 years ago in four of the eight judicial districts, and down by a third in another two, according to Boyd’s figures. Meanwhile, the American Bar Association reports the state added 772 more practicing attorneys over the same time period, going from 6,611 in 2003 to 7,383 in 2013.
So if there are more lawyers, why do fewer of them apply for judgeships?
The first answer many in the conversation offer is money.
Iowa Supreme Court Chief Judge Mark Cady made judicial salaries a key part of his January “Condition of the Judiciary” speech where he asked for a 4.5 percent hike in judge’s pay.
District judge salaries are set at $138,130 in Iowa. According to the National Center for State Courts, that’s below Illinois and Nebraska among Iowa’s border states and more than Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri and South Dakota, respectively.
“Those are big numbers, those are substantial salaries, but it’s all relative to the kind of salary a successful lawyer can make,” said Guy Cook, president of the Iowa State Bar Association. “It’s problematic to talk about what the number should be (for a judge), because salary should not be the driver for people applying to the job.”
Still, it’s not likely the Legislature is going to pony up. The Iowa House passed a $171 million judicial branch budget that did not include judicial raises. The bill now moves to the Senate.
“There’s only so much to go around, and we’ve got other priorities this year,” said Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, co-chair of the judicial budget committee. The bill included $3.1 million more in the witness and jury fund to help aid court operations.
Worthan agrees there’s a dearth of judicial applications but he’s not convinced money is the only factor.
“I don’t know if we know the reasons,” he said. “We are seeing the same things in the public arena in general; there’s less inclination for public service.”
Politics, prestige and the weather
University of Iowa School of Law Professor Patrick Bauer feels potential justices are still wary of the 2010 election when three Supreme Court justices lost their seats after a concerted effort to remove them by voters upset over the Varnum v. Brien decision which legalized same-sex marriage in Iowa.
He also thinks reductions to judicial branch support staff — clerks, recorders and the like — have made the job less attractive to attorneys.
Cook and Boyd also make the same points.
Boyd said the system is still building back from a 12 percent systemwide cut in 2009. He adds judges are less insulated than in the past.
“Generally speaking, whenever you have a difficult case and you’re the one that has to make the decision, you’re always being second-guessed,” he said. “And in today’s world, with the way we communicate, that decision can generate a lot more interest with certain individuals than it did in the past.”
Bauer said the solution is “somehow getting across the idea that judges are valued. It is a job that lawyers aspire to.” But absent putting more money to salaries and support or removing politics from the process, it’s proving difficult to do.
Justine Heffron of Centerville is a member of the nominating commission board for District 8A. That’s the district where only four lawyers submitted applications in 2012. She agrees with all the reasons — money, politics, prestige — that others mention, and adds one more: timing.
“Well that (vacancy) came up right near the holidays so people just weren’t around,” she said. “I remember the weather was bad, too, right when we were looking.”
By the numbers
Source: National Center for State Courts