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Iowa chief justice says workforce shortages are weighing on the courts

The entry to the Iowa Judicial Branch building in Des Moines.
Madeleine C King
IPR file
In her speech to state lawmakers, Iowa's chief justice said the state's ability to provide lawyers for indigent defendants is “on the verge of snapping.”

Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen used her Condition of the Judiciary speech to warn state lawmakers about workforce shortages that she said threaten to create gridlock in courtrooms across the state.

Speaking to lawmakers and state officials in the Iowa House chamber Wednesday, Christensen said there are not enough court reporters available to keep cases moving forward in a timely way. At the same time, there is a lack of court-appointed attorneys who represent defendants unable to afford their own lawyers.

Christensen said those same issues came up again and again in meetings she held with judges and attorneys across the state, and, if not resolved, threaten “to bring criminal proceedings to a screeching halt.”

Court reporters are responsible for making a transcript of everything that is said in a courtroom, creating a record that Christensen said is crucial when cases are appealed to higher levels of the judicial system.

Over time, more reporters have retired and fewer have been hired to replace them. As a result, Christensen said scheduling conflicts often cause hearings or trials to be delayed.

“Bumping cases - whether they are civil, criminal or juvenile - is unacceptable on a regular basis,” she said.

Christensen said she is appointing a committee to look at ways to better use the court reporters who are in the system and to recruit more people into the profession.

In addition to employing public defenders, courts contract with private lawyers to serve as defense attorneys. But because only a small percentage of lawyers participate in the program, Christensen said those who do take part take on large caseloads and may travel across two or three counties in one day to attend multiple court hearings.

When no contract attorney is available, she said, criminal cases can be left in limbo and decisions involving children in juvenile court may be brought to a standstill.

“Maybe it’s time for a kiddo to go home. It’ll have to wait,” Christensen said. “Maybe it’s time to remove a child from a dangerous situation. That, too, may have to wait.”

To entice more attorneys to take defense attorney contracts, Christensen called for higher wages and paid travel expenses. She said the judicial branch will also give judges more discretion to decide when to hold remote hearings.

“If COVID has taught us anything, it is we can and we should be using remote technology more than we have in the past to conduct routine, uncontested matters,” Christensen said.

In last year’s Condition of the Judiciary address, Christensen announced plans for a task force that would study the state’s juvenile justice system.

This week, she said that group came up with dozens of proposed reforms including plans to allow kids who are taken out of their homes to carry educational credits with them as they move, and to address gender disparities in the placement options available to girls in the juvenile system.

The final report from the task force is expected to be released by the end of January.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa