Condition of the Judiciary 2022: Chief justice highlights COVID changes, juvenile justice system

By: - January 12, 2022 12:12 pm

Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen gives the Condition of the Judiciary address to a joint session of Iowa’s Legislature at the Capitol in Des Moines on Jan. 12, 2022. (Pool photo by Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Des Moines Register)

Chief Justice Susan Christensen focused her annual Condition of the Judiciary address on the COVID-19 pandemic – how the courts adapted, and what changes would stay in place for the foreseeable future.

It was a marked difference from Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Condition of the State address, where the pandemic was mentioned only in passing.

“COVID has had an abrupt and brutal impact on the judiciary… Another year has now passed. What’s different?” Christensen said in prepared remarks. “Not only did everyone in the Judicial Branch get really good at handling the daily challenges that once nearly threw us under the bus, but we got stronger.”

The Iowa Supreme Court convened a Lessons Learned Task Force in April to evaluate COVID-era changes and decide which should stick around.

In December, the judicial branch decided to continue to allow defendants to attend certain proceedings and sentencing remotely. Juvenile courts and some family law matters may also use video conferencing. Christensen also pointed to federal CARES Act funding that gave “nearly every” courthouse in Iowa new technology for video conferencing and better audio and visual support in the courtroom.

“The benefits of this technology made available with CARES funding will be utilized by every county and certainly last years beyond COVID,” Christensen said.

Reflecting more broadly on the pandemic, Christensen said the judiciary “remained open for business,” and the daily onslaught of challenges made them better.

Christensen touts “4 Questions” program, promises more work on juvenile justice

Christensen also touted the judiciary’s work on juvenile justice over the past year. She highlighted the “4 Questions, 7 Judges” program – a series of four questions that a judge asks welfare workers before deciding to remove a child from their family.

The 4 Questions, 7 Judges program asks these questions before removing a child from their home. (Excerpt from Iowa Judicial Branch 2020 annual report)

The pilot program began in 2020, with seven judges posing the questions. It grew in 2021 to 34 judges, over half of the judges on Iowa’s juvenile bench.

“The 4 Questions, 7 Judges program catapulted from pilot status to statewide implementation based on its proven effectiveness at cutting removals by nearly half,” she said. 

Christensen expected the program to continue expanding, with the same set of questions asked at multiple points during the process of removing or returning a child to their home. Other states have also inquired about starting their own “4 Questions” pilot, she said.

Christensen thanked the Department of Human Services for proposing code changes to comply with Family First, a federal program to promote counseling, substance abuse treatment and mental health programs that prevents removing children from their household, when possible.

Looking ahead, Christensen noted that Iowa’s juvenile justice system is split in two: child welfare cases, where a court evaluates if a minor needs to be removed from a dangerous situation, and delinquency cases, where a court responds to the criminal actions of a child.

“Oftentimes, children are living in both of those worlds where the child’s parents cannot provide a safe home and the child has acted out in a way that has resulted in criminal charges being filed,” Christensen said.

Several state departments deal with juvenile justice cases, including the Department of Human Rights, and the Department of Human Services and the Department of Public Health. Christensen said the actions of one department often cause “unintended ripples” across the complex system.

The Iowa Supreme Court created a task force to analyze and streamline the system, including addressing racial and gender disparities within the system. Christensen said the task force, which includes several lawmakers, will release a full report in November.

Christensen mentioned several other upcoming changes, including:

  • A proposal to change the rules for criminal proceedings, coming sometime this month
  • Better educational curriculum for judges and judicial branch employees, including learning on race and disproportionality
  • New task force on appellate procedure
  • New task force on evidence

The judicial branch requested a 6.76% funding increase for the upcoming fiscal year, with the intention to hire four new district associate judges and 10 staff members.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Reporter Katie Akin began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.

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