Magistrate distribution questioned

BY ZHI XIONG | APRIL 23, 2009 7:29 AM

Johnson County could gain two magistrates if the state court administrator has his way.
But a lawsuit filed Monday questions whether it’s even legal to do so.

“He just doesn’t have that authority,” said Judge Warren Bush, who is suing State Court Administrator David Boyd.

Boyd notified judicial workers last week about a magistrate reapportionment across Iowa. With the judicial system suffering from budget cuts, the state can only afford to redistribute the judges, said 6th District Magistrate Bruce Goddard.

Magistrates are part-time judicial workers who handle a wide range of cases. They preside over search warrants, small claims, simple misdemeanors, and initial appearances after someone is arrested.

The shuffling is based on a new weighted caseload formula developed by the National Center for State Courts. Researchers tailored the study to Iowa’s judges and magistrates.

Rather than volume alone, the new formula considers the type of cases and time required to handle them. Johnson County could have six magistrates — a 50 percent increase. But new positions take away from 16 counties, each of which would be left with only one magistrate.

Bush said Goddard should have announced the changes at least a month ago.

“He didn’t follow the code,” he said. “The Legislature set the rules, and that’s what you have to follow.”

Bob Brammer, a spokesman for the state Attorney General’s office, said another judge filed a similar suit as Bush.

Steve Davis, a communications officer for the Iowa Supreme Court, declined to comment.

Bush added the workload study should have considered geographic area to better protect rural counties’ interests. Losing his cohort means Bush could be on-call 24 hours a day. He would have to drive from city to city in Sac County to hear all of the cases.

Magistrates also deal with adult mental-health and substance-abuse commitment cases. Judge Robert Shimanek of Jones County said those issues are particularly worrisome with the reapportionment because they account for many emergency on-call cases in rural areas.

The Jones County native would also have sole responsibility for taking those calls if the redistribution carries through.

But Goddard and urban area magistrates may not see less work. Ironically, magistrates in Johnson County could absorb cases from rural areas — the same ones that funneled judges to the more populated counties, said Lodema Berkley, Johnson County clerk of court.

Berkley said the clerk’s office will need to be flexible with scheduling, and the public will likely not suffer notable changes in proceedings with the reapportionment.

Goddard said he noticed the strain years ago, adding he spends time outside the courtroom to research and write rulings for the county.

Bush said he cannot work full-time for a part-time salary — roughly between $35,000 to $37,000 per year. He expects more work in upcoming weeks because the state courts will begin issuing marriage certificates for same-sex couples Monday.

To make for a more difficult summer, based on a four-year cycle, all magistrates are supposed to reapply for their positions starting in May. The new judges should be in place Aug. 1.

Despite the pending lawsuit, Bush turned in his application already. Shimanek, on the other hand, is not sure he will do the same.

“I believe there are going to be a number of qualified applicants who are going to reconsider their effort and time commitment,” he said.

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