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Iowa Courts Remain Open For Emergency Matters; Concerns Raised About Evictions And Access

polk county court
Stephen Matthew Milligan
/
Wikimedia Commons
Polk County Courthouse in Des Moines

Most court proceedings in Iowa are on hold to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but county clerk of court offices are still working as of Thursday to handle emergency needs.

State Court Administrator Todd Nuccio said even if county courthouse buildings are closed to the public, information should be posted outside for contacting the clerk of court.

“At this point, we’re focusing on emergency matters—things like domestic abuse protective orders, elder abuse proceedings, child removal proceedings, hospitalization, mental health commitment—those types of actions that require immediate intervention by the court,” Nuccio said.

Other court functions that are still allowed to be conducted in person include criminal case matters that can’t be delayed or done remotely, substance abuse treatment proceedings, motions to quash garnishments, and evictions in which the tenant poses a “clear and present danger.”

Other kinds of trials and hearings that were in progress as of March 13 will continue. But most criminal trials and hearings that have not yet started will be postponed until April 20 or later, and most civil cases are postponed until May 4 or later unless they can be conducted by phone.

These decisions were laid out in a series of supervisory orders from new Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen in response to the governor discouraging gatherings of more than 10 people to help prevent the spread of the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Nuccio said the court system continues to accept all kinds of legal filings.

“It’s just that you’re not going to be able to receive a bench trial or a jury trial any time for the near future,” he said.

Speedy trial and speedy indictment deadlines were also reset or extended under Justice Christensen’s most recent order dated March 17. And all statutes of limitations are on hold until May 4.

“Over the last few days, we have been doing our best to both predict and then deal with some of the brand new manifestations of the civil legal issues that our clients face,” said Alex Kornya, litigation director for Iowa Legal Aid.

He said he is very grateful the court system is trying to stay open to handle emergency issues, but COVID-19 could result in additional barriers to getting legal help.

Kornya said there might be confusion in different counties, which control their own courthouse buildings, about access to local court offices. That could particularly be a problem for victims of domestic violence seeking a protective order.

“And that’s not necessarily the court’s fault. The court is doing all it can, I think, to make sure that they’re there for our clients on these issues,” Kornya said. “The barriers are necessary for the public health issue, but they are causing additional issues.”

Kornya said he also has concerns about courts being allowed to proceed with evictions, but did not advocate for a specific manner in which those could be paused. He said on Wednesday morning, there were 509 open eviction cases in Iowa.

Christensen’s March 17 order allows judges to choose whether to postpone eviction proceedings until May 4 or later, or to move forward with them by phone.

Kornya said in Polk, Johnson and Linn counties, judges have thus far decided to postpone the vast majority of eviction hearings.

He said while the stakes are always high for Iowans facing eviction, the stakes are even higher with the present threat of COVID-19.

“It’s unclear where people will go,” Kornya said. “It is putting people at higher risk of…being infected with the coronavirus. And that puts us all at risk, frankly, not just our clients.”

The federal government Wednesday put a 60-day moratorium on foreclosures and evictions of single family homeowners with mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration. But there are Iowans who receive several other kinds of federal housing support who are not covered by the moratorium as of Thursday.