Judicial Reform and Funding our Judiciary
The judiciary is one of our three branches of government – part of our essential checks and balances. Iowa’s judiciary has been chronically underfunded for years now. When judgeships sit empty, when the court system is starved of money, it strips away at the bedrock of our democracy: equal protection under the laws.
We must fund our courts, as well as related services – juvenile services, diversion programs, and drug courts. Currently, because criminal cases take precedence, a civil, contested divorce case may wait a year for a court date. It can take up to two years to get a case through court. That is too long. Delays have real consequences for lives.
In January, Chief Justice Cady reported that our court system employs 182 fewer people than authorized just one year ago, a 10% reduction in workforce. The system is operating with 115 essential positions unfilled, and growing. Judges are retiring, and year over year, fewer private practice attorneys are seeking a career on the bench. That all translates to fewer judges, fewer court reporters, fewer case schedulers, and fewer juvenile court officers.
Rural Iowans are receiving fewer court services than Iowans in urban areas. And a freeze on new specialty courts means that the critical services provided by a specialty court in one county – such as a drug court – are not being provided in another county. Unequal justice is not justice.
In the most recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce ratings of the 50 state court systems, Iowa fell from fourth best court system in the nation to 13th. And the racial disparities in the Iowa justice system lead me to question even that 13th place rating.
African Americans comprise approximately 3.5% of Iowa’s population – and fully one-fourth of Iowa’s total prison population. Iowa’s incarceration rate for people of color is among the highest in the nation. And what does that mean for their futures when they are released? It’s hard to get jobs; hard to feed a family; hard to get ahead.
Voting Rights: Iowa is one of only three states where convicted felons who have served their terms face a lifetime ban on voting, unless they individually petition the governor. That must change. Disenfranchisement from voting reduces connection to the community, and continues to punish someone who has already served his or her time. Governor Vilsack signed an executive order in 2005 (E.O. 42) that automatically restored voting rights to felons who completed their sentences. Governor Branstad rescinded that executive order in 2011, replacing it with E.O. 70, which mandates that felons in Iowa pay all outstanding monetary obligations to the court, in addition to completing their sentence and a period of parole or probation. They may then apply for restoration of the ability to vote, per a streamlined process instituted in 2017.
Then-Governor Vilsack’s 2005 executive order laid out the situation that continues to be true today:
“Whereas, tens of thousands of Iowans who are living, working, and paying taxes in the state are denied the right to vote as a result of a prior conviction; and
“Whereas, disenfranchisement of offenders has a disproportionate racial impact thereby diminishing the representation of minority populations; and
“Whereas, research indicates ex-offenders that vote are less likely to re-offend; and
“Whereas, restoration of the right to vote is an important aspect of reintegrating offenders in society to become law-abiding and productive citizens…”
Small Claims Court (SCC) provides a legal forum for those who have smaller claims and who cannot afford an attorney. It is intended as an uncomplicated way to resolve disputes. Mediators who work pro bono with SCC clients have noticed that, as the amount that can be disputed in SCC has risen over the years – from $1500 in the 1990s to $5000 currently – the filing fee also increased, as has participation of lawyers. The filing fee is currently $85, a burden for many potential claimants. This year, the State Legislature considered increasing the amount that can be disputed in SCC to $7500. Mediators were concerned that would be paired with another filing fee increase. Fortunately, that proposal appears to be dead.
In sum, we need to reinstate automatic voting rights restoration for felons who have served their terms; end racially discriminatory sentencing; adequately fund our court system; and ensure that it is equally accessible to all Iowans.