A year ago I joked that I didn’t know the governor (Branstad at the time) and the legislature could cut another $7.7 million from our judiciary. While my comment was tongue-in-cheek, my worries were not. Our Iowa judiciary is facing challenges like we have never seen before. And it’s showing. The US Institute for Legal Reform had Iowa ranked number 4 among the US states for its judiciary in 2015. In just two short years, we have fallen to number 13. And there is reason to expect us to continue to fall as the Iowa legislature is set to cut another $50 million from state agencies in 2017, including another $4.8 million from our judicial branch.
But as this is about to happen, the judicial branch is so far down on the list of issues that matter to voters it barely even registers. At some point though the people of Iowa will notice but will it then be too late? Consider what these additional cuts may mean as as spelled out by Iowa State Bar Association President Steve Eckley in the latest edition of the Iowa lawyer:
- Approximately 30 Iowa courthouses will likely close;
- Additional layoffs will occur as 96 percent of the judicial branch is comprised of personnel costs;
- Fewer criminals will be arrested and will be more likely to have charges dropped;
- Victims of domestic abuse, individuals with mental health or substance abuse, parents with family law problems and juveniles in need of court services will be less likely to seek help or unable to get it due to the increased costs of travel time to courthouses outside their towns;
- Businesses will find it harder to collect accounts, enforce contracts and resolve disputes;
- Traffic matters will be much harder to resolve due to delays, inconvenience and increased costs;
- Civil litigants will have problems as they will be the lowest priority; and
- The Iowa economy may suffer (for example three years of state court funding cuts in Georgia created drastic changes in the total economic output to the tune of $337-$802 million annually.
The worst part about these cuts is that the Iowa judicial branch is essentially self-supporting. The judicial branch only received $175 million of the Iowa budget of $7.2 billion last year (2.5 percent of the total budget). Through collection of fines, fees and court costs the courts paid nearly $150 million into the general fund and several other state funds. In addition, the judicial branch saved the state more than $30 million by diverting individuals from correctional facilities and other expensive programs.
Why is there such an attack on our Iowa judiciary? Eckley speculates, and I believe he is correct, that the real answer is that certain Iowa state legislators have made it known that the courts would receive more funding if the judges made more favorable decisions. As Eckley declares,
This should be a clarion call not just to all Iowa attorneys, but to all Iowans who believe in basic democratic principles enshrined in our Constitution.
If we have courts that make decisions that are biased in favor of those who have political influence we will all lose. You, me and likely even one of those legislators at some point. We must have a properly funded AND independent judiciary. Ignore this issue at your peril!!
Updated information: based upon comments from one of my sources it appears the legislature may not cut quite as much as expected, although cuts are still likely to be in the $1.8 million range, which would still cause some significant issues for providing judicial services.