Funding Courts during Economic Tough Times – Iowa’s State of the Judiciary

Many South Carolinians may not automatically think of Iowa as a sister-state, but when it comes to access to justice, we may be very much alike.

Sound Familiar?

The Globe Gazette reported on the Iowa Supreme Court’s State of the Judiciary on Wednesday, January 14, 2009 when  Iowa Chief Justice Marsha Ternus addressed Iowa lawmakers and laid out the concerns regarding failure to provide access to courts and access to legal representation for people living in poverty or those of modest means, essentially equal access to justice.

“Administering justice is one of the reasons that government exists,” Ternus said according to prepared remarks. “If we neglect this fundamental obligation to the people, we break trust with them and ultimately, lose their confidence. And for government, public trust and confidence is everything.”

In the current economic conditions, Ternus also expressed concern that more and more people are unable to access the courts or cannot access them effectively because they cannot afford a lawyer.

“We have long recognized that the cost of legal representation is beyond the reach of the poor, but it is now often beyond the reach of the middle class,” Ternus said. “The end result: we have equal justice for some, but certainly not for all.”

The Des Moines Register‘s coverage included Ternus’ proprosals to provide access to justice including:

ACCESS TO LAWYERS: A growing number of Iowans have unmet needs in civil court because they cannot afford a lawyer, Ternus said.  . . .  Ternus asked lawmakers to maintain current funding levels for legal organizations that serve low-income Iowans, which she said are more important than ever as the economy staggers.

COST OF CIVIL CASES: The high cost and complexity of civil lawsuits has led many Iowans to private services such as mediators and arbitrators, Ternus said. She said some citizens and businesses have opted not to pursue legitimate legal claims because of the cost, or settle out of court even if a claim has no merit.  . . .

NEED FOR INTERPRETERS: State courts and other agencies still struggle with a statewide shortage of qualified language interpreters, Ternus said. The need, she said, is greatest in rural pockets of the state and in languages other than Spanish.

Ternus proposed a statewide interpreter center as a solution, which would pool all qualified interpreters into one place for the courts and government agencies to use.

I feel particularly aligned with the conclusion I read at (below).


As I have discussed, even before the current economic downturn, our courts were facing many serious challenges, and now the budget problem, and its potential impact on the delivery of justice to Iowans, looms large. But we face two other challenges that are no less daunting: the challenge of change and the challenge of maintaining public trust and confidence.

These days we hear a lot about the need for change. But I have enough experience to know that humans naturally resist change, even when they know it’s good for them. It reminds me of a bumper sticker I recently saw: “Change is good. You go first.”

We stand at a crossroads. Change will come whether we want it or not. We cannot stop the sweeping forces that are transforming our society, but we do have control over our response. We can choose to shape the future or we can wait for the future to shape us and then face the consequences of our inaction.

For our part, the Iowa Judicial Branch is ready to be a catalyst for change. We are fully prepared to prudently change Iowa’s court structure, procedures and services and to reallocate its resources to better meet the demands of our changing society. Because most of our structure and procedures are statutory, we cannot move forward unilaterally; we must have your support. As I have discussed, we propose a number of statutory changes required to bring about the improvements we envision, and we urge you to approve them all. With your approval,

  • we can support the continued delivery of high quality justice in Iowa,

  • we can ensure that a fundamental function of our democratic government stays strong, and

  • we can build and maintain public confidence in our government for generations to  come.

Martin Luther King once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort or convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Iowa has faced challenging times before, and the bright points in our history have been when Iowa’s leaders have found the vision, the courage, and the commitment to shape the future.

Let this be such a time.

As we enter the MLK remembrance weekend and as we stand on the bridge to a new American day, I ask each of us, regardless of our economic status, educational level, job or career, please consider that we are affected by those around us. If our family members or our neighbors suffer, we suffer too. For the egocentrics among us, if my neighbor’s home goes into foreclosure, that reduces my property value.

And, our neighbors are sometimes further down the road than we realize but they remain our neighbors. In Iowa our neighbors are working toward access to justice. Let’s support them by supporting access to justice at home, right here in South Carolina.


For the full text of Chief Justice Marsha Ternus’ 2009 The State of the Judiciary (Iowa), click here.