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Budget cuts worry Iowa courts

BY OLIVIA MORAN | MARCH 2, 2009 7:30 AM

Iowa’s court employees will take seven additional days of unpaid leave, the Iowa Supreme Court recently ordered.

Also known as furloughs, each temporary layoff day will save the Iowa judicial branch $335,009. The first furlough for Iowa’s courts was on Feb. 16.

Judges, attorneys, and court employees met with state senators at the Johnson County Courthouse on Feb. 27, expressing concerns about the anticipated $3.8 million in judicial cuts this year and a possible $15.4 million cut for fiscal 2010.

“Our system here is pretty cut to the bone already,” said Lori Klockau of the Bray & Klockau law firm in Iowa City. “It just doesn’t make sense to me that we would take the brunt.”

Sixth District Judge David Remley discussed numerous budget-cut scenarios at the meeting, including permanent employee layoffs, fewer judges, and fewer magistrates.

At the meeting, Klockau urged Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, and Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, to push for an exemption to the cuts. Currently, the Department of Corrections, the Department of Public Safety, the Victim’s Compensation Fund, and others are exempt.

Johnson County Clerk of Court Lodema Berkley argued the state should reward hard-working court employees rather than punish them.

“There has to be more funding some place,” she said. “We beg you to realize we’re not just the bottom line of everything.”

In a recent study by the National Center for State Courts, Remley said researchers determined Iowa is short 27 district judges. He added Johnson County is short 1.3 district associate judges and 3.8 district judges.

And Johnson County’s workload is larger than most, thanks to flood litigation and leftover tornado cases, Remley said.

Fewer judges and fewer court days “means less time judges can be doing what judges do,” Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Baker said. “It’s the ramifications on the public we need to focus on.”
Beginning March 24, the public will have even more limited access to the courts. Also announced Feb. 27, the clerk of court offices across the state will close at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays rather than the usual 4:30 p.m. closing time.

Berkley said the Johnson County staff’s biggest fear is facing more work with less time to do it.
Daniel Bray, also of Bray & Klockau law firm, told the senators at the meeting “at least give us a status quo budget.”

Remley also expressed the need for a status quo budget, but presented a second option of doubling Iowa’s $100 filing fee. Kansas recently doubled its filing fee, and states such as Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota enact fees more than double what they are in Iowa, Remley argued.

The Iowa House of Representatives approved the $3.8 million judicial budget cut for fiscal 2009 on Feb. 26. Officials are waiting for the Senate to agree. Official cuts for fiscal 2010 are still unknown.


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