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Courts look for ways to cut

BY OLIVIA MORAN | FEBRUARY 27, 2009 7:30 AM

Judicial officials are even more fearful after recently hearing about some additional budget cut scenarios.

Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Marsha Ternus held a press conference on Feb. 19, warning the state courts of additional temporary layoffs, possible permanent layoffs, and fewer judges.

In the most recent Iowa Judicial Branch Operating Budget update, officials announced a proposed $3.8 million cut for the remainder of fiscal 2009 and an estimated $15.4 million reduction for fiscal 2010 — roughly 8 percent of the budget.

Expenditures for books, travel, and equipment maintenance, among others, could be reduced by $1.3 million, a cut Johnson County Clerk of Court Lodema Berkley said seems ridiculous.

“It’s things that are out of our control,” she said. “That just shows to me we’re going to let it break. It just makes no sense to me.”

The $1.3 million cut would also include spending on supplies, communications, postage, contractual services, and furniture. The budget update listed potential drawbacks to the cut, including impaired court operations.

For fiscal 2009, 6th District Chief Judge David Remley announced in a supervisory order earlier this month the district will make the majority of its budget cuts in travel expenses. The reductions will delay trials; priority will only be given to child custody cases.

Cases could be further delayed if the state decides to enact another scenario, which would leave open judge positions vacant instead of hiring someone new.

“If the vacancy were in Johnson County, there certainly would be some effect,” Remley said.
Berkley said fewer judges would hurt the public more than anything.

“We must remember our judges need to be fresh,” she said.

But fewer judges doesn’t necessarily mean fewer trials per year. Berkley said the Johnson County Courthouse already lacks enough courtrooms to house every judge.

“If we had the room, yes it would hurt our caseloads, but it’s not going to hurt us any worse,” she said.

Some drawbacks listed in the report included that Iowa has a shortage of judges and the scenario would add to their already heavy workload, further delaying cases.

The state has decided to study before implementing another scenario, which would replace court reporters with an electronic system.

Kristina Sickels, the executive director of the Iowa Court Reporters Association, said court reporters have benefited from the system for more than 100 years.

“The primary concern we have is that the record could be in jeopardy,” she said.

None of the budget-saving scenarios are final. Final decisions will be made when the Iowa Legislature announces official cuts to the budget.


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