State must address shortage of court-appointed attorneys, chief justice says

By: - January 11, 2023 3:21 pm

Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen delivers the annual Condition of the Judiciary address to the Iowa Legislature in the Iowa House chamber at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines on Jan. 11, 2023. (Photo by Erin Murphy/The Gazette)

A dwindling number of court reporters and attorneys who agree to represent indigent criminal defendants and others is unnecessarily delaying court cases and hindering the lives of some children, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen said Wednesday.

“The statewide contract attorney shortage is threatening to bring criminal proceedings to a screeching halt,” Christensen said in the annual State of the Judiciary address at the Iowa State Capitol.

The state has contracts with attorneys who agree to take lesser hourly rates to represent criminal defendants and juveniles who can’t afford legal representation.

There are now fewer than 600 contract attorneys — about 12% of the full-time attorneys in the state, Christensen said. That’s down significantly from 2011, when there were more than 1,000, according to a State Public Defender’s report from that year.

Christensen said the lack of attorneys who agree to provide indigent defense has reached a tipping point that might accelerate the decline: Their increasing workloads can push them away from the work.

An example, Christensen said she heard of an instance in which one attorney traveled to three different counties in one day for hearings on felony cases — one of which was attempted murder and arson — and a termination of parental rights.

“This is a crisis in almost every rural and urban county in our state,” she said.

The judicial branch does not control the budget and pay for those attorneys, but Christensen said their hourly rates should increase, and they should be paid for travel time.

The Office of the State Public Defender has been increasing those hourly rates in recent years, according to its website. They range from $68 to $78 per hour for criminal cases, depending on the severity of the charges. That’s up from $60 to $70 per hour about four years ago, but attorneys in private practice might charge hundreds of dollars per hour.

The court-appointed attorneys are also paid 39 cents per mile for travel. The Internal Revenue Service’s standard mileage rate at the end of 2022 was 62.5 cents.

Christensen encouraged judges to expand the use of virtual, remote hearings to accommodate attorneys who are forced to travel frequently.

“As bad as it is for criminal proceedings, many judges report that the contract attorney crisis is even worse in juvenile court,” she said. “In those cases, lack of attorneys results in delayed hearings. Delayed hearings means delayed determinations on very important issues such as placement of a child. Maybe it’s time for a kiddo to go home? It’ll have to wait. Maybe it’s time to remove a child from a dangerous situation? That too may have to wait.”

Court-appointed attorneys for juvenile cases are paid $68 per hour, up from $60 four years ago.

Court reporters also in demand

Christensen did not provide a potential solution to the shortage of court reporters, whose retirements have outpaced those who are starting careers.

Court reporters type what is spoken during court hearings, trials and others, and their transcriptions are important for appeals.

About 19% of the court reporter positions budgeted by the judiciary are vacant, according to its annual report. That’s 34 vacant positions of the total 182.

Christensen said a new committee of judges, court reporters and judicial staff is reviewing the problem and might have recommendations next year.

“We know how the court reporter shortage and crisis affects every legal proceeding, and we are committed to making it better,” she said.

A Juvenile Justice Task Force is also working to improve the state’s juvenile justice system, in part by ensuring that there is adequate information sharing with the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services.

The judicial branch has requested a budget increase of 4% for fiscal year 2024, for a total of about $198 million. About half of that requested increase is for salaries — an 8.7% increase that matches the recent Social Security cost of living adjustment.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.