Is being a judge in Iowa a less desirable job these days?
It appears so. And that trend doesn't serve the cause of justice.
David Boyd, administrator of the Iowa courts, this year began an analysis of the number of judicial applicants in the state's 14 judicial districts over the past decade. Sofar, he says he's finding that many applicant pools are shrinking in quantity and quality.
In four districts, the number of candidates was down by half compared to 10 years ago; in two other districts, they were down by one-third.
This, despite the fact that the number of practicing lawyers in Iowa grew by 772 from 2003 to 2013. Because most judges are first lawyers, why is this happening?
Iowa Supreme Court Chief Judge Mark Cady has pitched for better salaries. Currently, district judge pay is set at $138,130.
While that's lower than in Illinois and Nebraska, it's still higher than in Iowa's other border states. So pay may or may not be the big factor in this situation.
We think working conditions and less insulation from the public may be the greater underlying causes.
After years of tight funding for Iowa's court system, along came a 12 percent systemwide cut in 2009 during the economic recession. The system is still rebuilding from those cuts, which led to painful reductions in judicial support staff such as clerks and recorders — all at a time when judges' caseloads generally have been on the rise.
And as the Supreme Court's same-sex marriage ruling illustrated in 2009, the public reaction to high-profile rulings is amplified through the proliferation of social media tools — intensifying the storm of “second-guessing” that judge are less insulated from today.
Judges will always have to work in the arena of public opinion, and that's essentially a good thing.
However, they deserve reasonable working conditions and adequate staff resources so they can keep up with the caseload and serve Iowans to the best of their abilities. Legislators always must make the court system a priority as they weigh annual budget decisions.
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