Acting Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins notes challenges for rural courts

Wiggins delivers his first and only State of the Judiciary address ahead of his March retirement

Acting Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice David Wiggins delivers the 2020 State of the Judiciary address at the Iowa Capitol on Jan. 15. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

As Iowa’s rural courthouses continue to shrink and leave people in those counties with less access to services, the Iowa Judicial Branch is requesting more funding from the Legislature to help fill the gap.

In 2019, 29 rural counties were staffed with two or fewer clerks, according to the Iowa Judicial Branch. 

That creates challenges for residents, who rely on courthouses to be open during consistent hours as they seek help for issues like filing for relief from domestic abuse or help with criminal charges, Wiggins told reporters Wednesday.

“When we’re short of funds, the rural courts seem to get shut down first,” Wiggins said. “They seem to have less people there.”

Counties that are understaffed are spread throughout the state, including Osceola, Worth, Grundy, Adair and Davis counties, according to 2019 statistics from the Iowa Judicial Branch.

In more recent years, funding has been cut for Iowa courts, resulting in staffing layoffs, particularly in rural counties. Around $3 million was deappropriated from the Iowa Judicial Branch for fiscal year 2017 as the state was trying to balance its budget. 

The branch, which pays for courthouse staffing, cut 67 positions as a result.

To help alleviate the burden on rural courthouses, the Iowa Judicial Branch is asking for $878,662 in its budget request to hire an additional 17 clerks. Those clerks will work for counties that are experiencing staffing shortages

Beyond the funds to help rural courthouses, there is a $6 million request to invest in the current staff and a $250,000 request for the Jury and Witness Fund to help pay for interpreters across the state.

In total, the Iowa Judicial Branch is requesting a 4% increase, raising its appropriation to around $188.7 million in comparison to last year where it received $181.5 million.

Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said he can’t address yet whether or not the committee will recommend the 4% funding. 

Despite protections that the budget year will end with $300 million left in the bank, Holt said lawmakers have to be careful. Not too many years ago, they watched $900 million get gobbled up when the Revenue Estimating Conference’s projections turned out to be too rosy.

But Holt said he understands the pressure on rural systems, where the loss of a position can make a much bigger dent in a staff. 

He compared it to school districts that have to bus their students farther to school, facing bigger transportation bills. 

“Challenges exist in the rural areas that don’t exist in bigger cities, and there also are wonderful reasons to live in a rural area that don’t exist in the bigger cities,” Holt said. “But I think it’s true that you have a smaller staff in the rural areas and if you lose one person that’s definitely a bigger challenge.”

In front of the Iowa Legislature on Wednesday, Wiggins also gave his first and only State of the Judiciary address as he prepares to retire from the state’s highest court in March.

His speech paid homage to former Iowa Chief Justice Mark Cady who died in November following a heart attack, acknowledging Cady’s work to make the courts more accessible and his commitment to fairness for Iowans.

He also referred to his own retirement and the changes set to come for the Iowa Supreme Court as Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds prepares to appoint two new justices.

“I hope you can see what the courts mean to your communities and how they are changing to meet the community’s needs while continuing to administer justice fairly and impartially to all Iowans,” Wiggins said during his speech. “Justice is more than a court system. It is what we give to each other as neighbors and Iowans.”