DES MOINES — The Iowa judicial system no longer has the bandwidth to deliver the justice “to meet the demands that our citizens expect and deserve,” the state’s top court administrator warned lawmakers Wednesday.
“I think we can be doing a better job than we are today,” State Court Administrator Todd Nuccio told the legislative Judicial Systems Appropriations Subcommittee.
Nuccio’s comments come nearly two months after Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady warned lawmakers of “ominous signs” that insufficient resources for the Judicial Branch “tear at the very fabric of our operation and mission.”
The court system probably can weather Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposed $1.6 million midyear budget cut without reducing court hours or clerk of court office services, Nuccio said. The courts have taken steps through the year in anticipation of a midyear cut.
However, he couldn’t make the same promise if the cuts in the final four months of the budget year are deeper or continue into the next fiscal year.
“If you go beyond that $1.6 million, we start to get a little more serious,” Nuccio said. “If you carry forward that $1.6 million into fiscal 2019, we have issues again. It all depends on the numbers.”
The number he shared with legislators showed the Judicial Branch, which has 1,807 positions authorized in 99 counties, has 134 open positions. Twelve judge positions are open. The length of time those positions remain vacant has increased from an average of six months to a year.
If the 2019 budget is not fully funded, Nuccio said, the Judicial Branch has little resources but to cut field staff.
He explained that 96 percent of the Judicial Branch’s fiscal 2018 budget goes for personnel costs. And 92 percent of the personnel are at the trial court level, he said.
The judiciary budget is 2.5 percent of the state’s $7.2 billion general fund budget.
Nuccio is not alone in his concern.
Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, said the courts are one of the top budget concerns for his Republican caucus.
“As Republicans,” he said, “we represent a lot of rural Iowa, and we know those courthouses will be the first affected if there are more cuts.”
The impact of judicial openings already is being felt, according to Nuccio and representatives of the Iowa State Bar Association who were present for the presentation. Civil trials, they said, regularly are being delayed for up to a year because other cases — criminal matters, domestic abuse and mental health commitments — are higher priorities for the courts.
Overall, the number of cases being filed has decreased from more than 1 million filings in 2009 to nearly 769,000 in 2017, Nuccio said.
However, Jim Carney, who represents the bar association, said the domestic abuse cases have increased by about 1,000 in the past 10 years and mental health commitments are up from 8,000 to 12,500. Often, he added, those are pro se cases, that is, the parties appear without legal representation. As a result, they take much more time.
Nuccio asked the committee to support his $6.75 million budget request for the coming year and $4.4 million for new positions that a workload formula identify as needed.
He pointed out the courts collected $146 million in revenue in 2017, with $116 million going to the state. When that is subtracted from the Judicial Branch’s $175 million operating budget, Nuccio said that less than 1 cent of every state tax dollar is spent on the courts.
Worthan doubted the Legislature will fully fund the Judicial Branch budget request.
“We can’t cure all their ills, but we’re very interested in maintaining services,” he said.