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Chief Justice: Cuts are ‘rationing access to justice’ in Iowa
Budget cuts have left citizens without adequate access to the Iowa Courts, and the subsequent fallout will cause much more heartache than reinstating funding, Chief Justice Marsha Ternus told members of the legislature Wednesday during the annual State of the Judiciary address.
“Justice is not an optional government service,” Ternus said, noting that justice is “a constitutional imperative” and, as Alexander Hamilton described it, “the first duty of society.”
“The general theme of my previous reports has been that the state of the judiciary is good. This year, however, I cannot give a favorable report.”
Since the 2002 fiscal year, she noted, staffing levels have been reduce by 17 percent. In just the last year, staff was cut by 11 percent. In fact, the state’s courts now operate with a smaller workforce than it had in 1987, the year the state assumed full funding for the court system. The number of serious and time-consuming cases before the court, however, have increased by 66 percent.
Ternus also argued that budget shortfalls have adversely impacted the Judicial Branch more than any other aspect or agency in government.
“Unlike many state agencies and the regents, the judicial branch has no pass-through funds, no programs to cut and no reserves to tap. Nearly all our operating costs are for people – employees and judges who are the life blood of the court system — so when we cut our budget, we must cut our workforce.”
Court officials have begun to deal with cases based on a priority system. Those cases determined to have priority — for instance, civil cases that involve children — are continuing to be heard and decided in a prompt manner. Non-priority cases, however, are not provided this same access.
“Ironically, under funding the judicial system is counterproductive to economic recovery because a well-funded court system contributes to the economic well-being of our communities. Besides the obvious impact caused by layoffs of state employees, which harm local communities, cuts in court budgets impact the business community at large. Case delays add to the cost of doing business and create uncertainties for business, making them less likely to invest and expand.”
Ternus did provide a few avenues in which the judicial branch might be able to realize long-term savings — for instance, digitizing records. The only short-term revenue-producing change at the court’s disposal is to raise court fees. Ternus fears that raising costs could further hamper access to the courts.
Additionally, most long-term options do require upfront costs. And, while generally accepted and greeted by staff, there are some potential cost-saving measures that have created concern.
A key concern is the possible switch from traditional court reporter services to digital recording and transcript service. Although Iowa has not yet made the switch, 26 states and most federal courts have done so. Court officials concerned with the proposal speak of accuracy, cost and records access.
“You may think that rationing access to justice is not too much to ask Iowans given the state’s dire financial circumstances and the sacrifices being made by all Iowans during the recession. But think again.”
Those who will bear the brunt of the cuts, according to Ternus, are those who can least afford it — abused and neglected children, victims of violence, communities battling juvenile delinquency and crime, and business owners who meed to resolve conflicts.
Ternus and the judicial branch have requested that the legislature to keep their funding at existing levels.