Access to Justice: Iowa Style

Below are excerpts from IOWA State of the Judiciary delivered by Chief Justice Mark S. Cady on January 12, 2011. Unfortunately some of these access to justice issues noted by Chief Justice Cady resound here in South Carolina. For the entire text, click here.

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.

This situation is not new. It has been raised in the past. Thankfully, you and the governor responded to our concerns last year and provided sufficient funds to prevent further cuts, layoffs, and furloughs. For this action, we are grateful. Like a thumb in the dike, however, this action was merely a temporary fix. It did not halt the continued erosion of court services. The situation grows worse day-by-day.

For example, in the past year, the number of clerk of court offices forced to operate on a part-time basis increased from 26 to 30. Staff reductions are so severe that at times some of these offices must close for business without notice due to unanticipated employee absence. The remaining clerk of court offices operate a full day, but are closed to the public for four hours a week to give employees periods of uninterrupted time to pare down the backlog of work. In addition, it has become increasingly difficult for our juvenile court officers to give troubled children the close, personal attention they need. Also, judicial rulings are delayed because of a lack of clerical support and court reporters.

I will briefly review how we arrived at this critical juncture.

From 2001 through 2009, in response to the state’s fiscal problems, the judicial branch like most components of state government had to cut its budget. During those years, the judicial branch cut its budget five times―and each time the cuts were deep. Unlike many state agencies, nearly all of our operating costs are for people―employees and judges. This means that budget cuts almost always require further reductions in our workforce. The end result: our staffing levels have dropped a staggering 17% in the last decade.

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.

Our ability to deliver court services and resolve litigation to the extent that we do is a tribute to the strong work ethic and indomitable spirit of our judges, magistrates, and court staff. Unfortunately, the admirable efforts of our judges and employees cannot totally shield Iowans from the effects of the past decade of budget cuts.

-RFW

Dallas News: Immigrants with Mental Illness

Appropriate treatment is difficult for most who live with serious mental illness. Often treatment is relegated to the detention system instead of appropriate community or in-patient facilities.

Just take a look at recent posts out of Iowa,  Las Vegas, Ft. Lauderdale, and Lakeland.

But if you’re an immigrant in the U.S., it’s almost impossible to find appropriate treatment, at least according to an article by the Dallas News.

Excerpts:

They get limited mental-health care while in detention, advocates say – and that’s only if they’re diagnosed. They aren’t entitled to competency hearings before standing trial. And the majority of them face judges without legal counsel, and with little recourse to defend themselves from deportation.

. . .

“We are continuing to work … to improve the services and the availability of health care to those in our custody,” said Tim Counts, spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But immigration court officials acknowledge there’s little guidance for how to handle mental health once these detainees come before a judge. Although judges can’t accept an admission of guilt from an “unrepresented incompetent,” there are no immigration-court proceedings to determine a person’s competency. Judges have to go with their gut – which can be tough to gauge with language barriers and the frequent use of long-distance video conferencing.

What is the solution? Is there a solution. I’d love to hear from you.

-RFW

Ah, youth today!

I was heartened to read a blog at Citizen Law Program at the University of Iowa College of Law entitled Why Make Time to Volunteer in a Law-Related (Pro Bono) Project?

I recommend it to you too, especially if you’ve ever wondered about generational gaps. And yes, I’m as guilty of that as anyone else my age.

Coincidence about Iowa, right?

-RFW

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 www.essentialestrogen.com (below).

Conclusion

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.

-RFW

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