Despite being under threat of impeachment, Iowa Chief Justice gives State of the Judiciary

The National Center for State Courts has an archive of 2011, 2010, and previous years State of the Judiciary addresses located here.

Despite active efforts by members of the Iowa House impeach him, Chief Justice Mark Cady presented the State of the Judiciary earlier today to a joint convention of the legislature pursuant to a resolution (HCR 3 of 2011) passed by both chambers. HCR 3 noted that the Chief Justice’s report is statutorily based. Iowa Code 602.1207 provides:

The chief justice shall communicate the condition of the judicial branch by message to each general assembly, and may recommend matters the chief justice deems appropriate.

Highlights of the Chief Justice’s speech (full text here) included:

The story of our ability to deliver justice to Iowans over the decades—the story of our people—shows our job will be done regardless of the cards we are dealt. But, there is no doubt our mission, more and more, is becoming harder and harder to achieve. I too fear, as Kim Glock does, that the deep cuts in our resources are beginning to cause damage to our system of justice. Let me explain beginning with what I observe to be a decline in access to justice.

Access to Justice
Iowans cannot have the hope of justice without having access to justice. The grim reality is that more and more Iowans with legal problems are forced to wait too long for their day in court. These problems are troublesome to litigants and shake people’s confidence in our government. These problems result from a decade of fiscal austerity coupled with Iowans’ growing demands for court services…Today, Iowa’s court system operates with a smaller workforce than it had in 1987. In contrast, over the same period, the total number of legal actions brought by Iowans and Iowa businesses has nearly doubled. In short, Iowa’s courts are overrun with work, and Iowans are paying the price with reduced access to justice.

EDMS and Civil Justice Reform
We are testing a system for electronic filing and retrieval of documents. This system, which we call EDMS, expands access to justice beyond the courthouse walls. It enables litigants, lawyers, and others to file and access court records online, at anytime, night and day. It saves Iowans the cost and inconvenience of traveling to the courthouse to conduct their business. It gives judges access to records as soon as they are filed. If everything goes as planned and we have sufficient resources to move ahead, we should have EDMS fully implemented in five or six years.

Reasons to Bolster Court Funding
The recession has placed additional demands on our courts. In the past three years, mortgage foreclosure cases filed in Iowa have increased 17%, debt collection cases have increased 15%, child-in-need-of-assistance cases have increased 23%, and adult civil commitment cases have increased 19%. These legal actions may have a life-altering effect on the Iowans involved. This is not the time to give them ration cards for justice…We appreciate the continued need for all of government, including the judicial branch, to “share the pain.” However, the courts are already stretched painfully thin. I hope we can all agree that Iowans deserve more access to justice than they have now. Our fiscal year 2012 budget request reflects a modest three-year plan to improve Iowans’ access to justice. We ask you to give it serious consideration.

When the Iowa Supreme Court decided the Varnum v. Brien case on April 3, 2009, we understood it would receive great attention and be subject to much scrutiny. We worked hard to author a written decision to fully explain our reasoning to all Iowans, and we understand how Iowans could reach differing opinions about this decision…First, I hope to help us move forward by addressing the concerns some Iowans have about our system for selecting judges.

Merit Selection Fosters Fair and Impartial Courts

Importantly, the Iowa Constitution requires that all commission members be chosen “without regard to political affiliation.” Likewise, the law specifically requires the commissioners to choose nominees “without regard to political affiliation.”

Don Decker, a Ft. Dodge businessman and long-time Republican, who served on the state judicial nominating commission in the mid-1990s, recently told me that, when it came to selecting a slate of nominees for a judicial position, he “rooted for the home team” but always voted for the most qualified applicants regardless of their party affiliation. This honest assessment captures the reason our process has worked so well for so long.

Building Public Confidence in Commissions: Enhancements
In addition to opening interviews to the public, we recommend that the state and district nominating commissions: adopt uniform rules of procedure, adopt a code of ethics, and adopt procedures for the release of more information to the public.

Principle #1: Courts Serve the People by Serving the Rule of Law
The will of the people followed by courts is the will expressed in our law as constrained by the written principles in the constitution. If this were any other way, “why have a constitution?”…Chief Justice William Rehnquist called the independence that allows judges to serve the law “the crown jewel of our system of justice.” I hope we can go forward with the same understanding.

Principle #2: Upholding the Constitution is the Most Important Role of Courts
Upholding the constitution is the most important function of courts. The duty of courts to review the constitutionality of laws is known as judicial review and is one of our most basic responsibilities.

In 1849, the Iowa Supreme Court issued its first decision that protected the constitutional rights of an Iowan by invalidating a statute enacted by the legislature. In this case, the court stated it was “a settled principle” in this country that courts have the power, “as a matter of right and duty, to declare every act of the legislature made in violation of the constitution, or any provision of it, null and void.” This is the very duty the court exercised in the Varnum decision.

As far back as 1883, the Iowa Supreme Court made it clear that even unpopular rulings could not simply be suspended in time to await any future legislative action. In its decision, the court said that, if courts could be coerced by popular majorities to disregard the constitution any point in time, “constitutions would become mere ropes of sand and there would be an end of . . . constitutional freedom.”

Promoting Understanding about the Work of Courts
Lastly, it is my hope that we can move forward with a shared commitment for a greater understanding of our courts and their important role in maintaining our democracy. This understanding can best be achieved by making our courts even more transparent.

Up until a year ago, the [Iowa Courts] website also provided a video cast of supreme court proceedings, but this procedure was a victim of the budget cuts. Nevertheless, we can do more to open the work of the courts to the people. So today I’m pleased to announce the Iowa Supreme Court plans to hold some of its oral arguments in communities across Iowa. This will allow interested citizens an opportunity to watch the court proceedings, and the proceedings can be used as a teaching tool for our youth.

Conclusion: Let Us Go Forward with a New Understanding
So, let us go forward with a new understanding—a new understanding of the courts and a new understanding of the direction that will lead to a better and brighter future, for all Iowans…So, let me end by asking all branches of government, and all people, to go forward, together, to transform the promise given to us into our proud legacy. The story that is not yet told is our story. Let us go forward to write our untold story with a greater understanding of ourselves, and all Iowans.