DES MOINES (AP) — A decade of budget-cutting has left Iowa's court system crippled, and another round of reductions would threaten the quality of justice delivered in the state, Chief Justice Mark S. Cady warned lawmakers Wednesday.
Staffing for courts has dropped 16 percent since the state took over the system in 1987, while the caseload has soared, Cady said in a speech to a joint session of the Legislature.
"Unlike in the past, status quo funding will not even allow us to limp along for another year," he said. "Fewer staff and more closed courthouses will cause greater delays and less access to justice. In my opinion, these unwanted consequences would pierce the spirit of our devoted court employees and mark the start of a decline of our great court system."
Cady delivered his annual report on the condition of the state's court system, along with his request for a new budget. He asked lawmakers for $163.3 million for the year beginning in July, up from $154.1 million this year.
"While we have faced budget cuts year after year, resulting in a workforce smaller than we had 24 years ago, our workload has increased dramatically," said Cady.
The court system has been battered for years as the state has struggled with budget shortfalls, largely because 95 percent of the budget for the system is for staff and so layoffs are the only way officials can cut spending. Staffing has dropped by 336 since 2002, officials noted, and now stands at 1,753.
Cuts began in 2002 with a 10 percent budget reduction that forced 107 layoffs and pay cuts for 80 workers, while hours were reduced for 67. By 2010, 105 more workers were laid off, 73 vacant positions were eliminated and 33 county clerk offices became part time.
"As a small-town attorney, I feel it because the clerk's office is closed on Tuesdays and Thursday," said Rep. Richard Anderson, R-Clarinda, the head of the House Judiciary Committee.
He promised little quick relief, though, saying, "I think we got into this situation over a period of years and it will take years to get out of it."
Sen. Gene Fraise, D-Fort Madison, head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, argued that soaring prison populations had added to the budget problems facing the justice system in Iowa.
"When I came here we had 3,500 people incarcerated and now there's about 9,000," said Fraise.
Cady told lawmakers that spending on the state's justice system is only about 2.5 percent of the state's budget, and he argued that the spending increase he's seeking is not large.
"We need just a small fraction more to adequately fund and staff the branch, but a fraction that will make a world of difference," said Cady.
Court staffers said there are real consequences of the deep cuts. Court spokesman Steve Davis said that in Woodbury County a divorce filing used to be heard within three months but now sits for up to six months before any action is taken. In Webster County, civil cases at one point went to trial within two months, but currently can sit for a year or more before being heard.
"Too many times, inadequate staffing levels have forced rescheduling of custody, and parents and children have been forced to wait," said Cady.
Chuck Hurley, a former lawmaker who now lobbies for conservative causes, said that based on what he's seen in more than 25 years as an attorney in the state, "I believe most of the court employees are dedicated and most of them are overworked."
"They are expected to sort through impossible circumstances," he said.
Cady told lawmakers that the state of the judiciary was in their hands and that they risked losing the confidence in a reliable and efficient court system, but also would be jeopardizing a building block for economic growth.
Hurley said the Supreme Court bruised its relationship with some social conservatives when it struck down a state law defining marriage as being between one man and one woman.
"That diminished their moral authority that they so desperately need to maintain," said Hurley.
Anderson disagreed, saying the court has faced budget problem for a decade, long before the marriage issue.
"This has been going on well before that, at least eight to 10 years," said Cady.