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Iowa Chief Justice Looks To Move Courts Past COVID

John Pemble
IPR file

The leader of Iowa’s Judicial Branch says because of COVID-19 the court system has been “turned on its head for almost a year,” but she says lessons learned during the pandemic can improve the system going forward.

Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen gave her first State of the Judiciary speech to the legislature Wednesday, laying out goals to restart jury trials, keep rural courthouses busy and continue reforming the state’s approach to child welfare cases.

Christensen said that shortly after the first cases of the coronavirus were reported in Iowa, all jury trials were suspended until September. Then, they were halted again after a spike in hospitalizations. In spite of those delays, Christensen said the courts have worked out systems to hold hearings remotely and to safely select jurors.

State of the Judiciary 2021

“The lessons we learned during those two months of pilot trials were absolutely immensely helpful for when we resume jury trial in just a few weeks on Feb. 1,” she said.

Masks and social distancing are required in courtrooms, but not all courthouses have the same rules outside of areas controlled by the judiciary. She said that has required some negotiation with county leaders to make the rules consistent.

Christensen, who lives in Harlan in western Iowa, wants to expand a program started during the pandemic that she said will keep rural courts active. It allows staffers from one courthouse to work remotely for another court that’s overwhelmed with its workload.

“For one county to be able to assist another county in need within the same district, whether it’s during a pandemic or not, this keeps each county relevant no matter the size,” she said.

Christensen has a background in family law, and said she is also looking to expand programs aimed at reducing the number of children in the child welfare system removed from their homes.

She told members of the legislature that keeping children with their families may be the best option, even in homes with abuse or addiction.

“Studies show that in many cases the long-term trauma experienced by a child who’s been removed and placed in an out-of-home placement, such as foster care perhaps, sometimes that may be worse than any trauma with actually staying in the home,” she said.

Christensen said federal programs now allow greater access to services that can prevent the need for family separations. She said Iowa should use that to expand programs that provide families with legal representation and to grow the number of family treatment courts to address child abuse and neglect.