DES MOINES — Some of Iowa’s 14 judicial districts do not have enough judges to handle the cases in their workload efficiently, while a couple of districts have more judges or judicial staff than they need, according to a state report.
Other states facing similar issues are considering judicial redistricting: redrawing the boundaries by which judges and their staff are divided to determine resources and deliver services.
Opinions vary as to whether judicial redistricting would benefit Iowa’s court system. And in other states that have tried, those efforts have run into political hurdles.
“There are definitely imbalances, not just within districts but within (individual) judges’ workloads as well,” said Rep. Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, who chairs the Iowa House’s committee on the courts. “It definitely needs to be addressed.”
In the state report, the Iowa Judicial Officer Workload Assessment Study, a formula to determine workload and ideal judicial staffing was applied to each of Iowa’s 14 judicial districts.
According to the report, District 4, which includes nine counties in Iowa’s southwestern corner, should have three more district judges and two more associate judges. That’s a judicial staffing shortage of 30 percent.
District 8A, which includes 10 counties in southeast Iowa, should have two more judges and another associate, a total shortage of 25 percent, the report determined.
Meantime, District 5B, which includes nine counties in south central Iowa, has one more judge than it needs. And a few other districts have one more associate judge than they need, according to the report.
Judicial redistricting — redrawing the boundaries that encompass those districts — could help even some of those workloads. But not everyone agrees whether that is needed in Iowa or whether it would work.
“I think, going forward, that it’s definitely something that, given budget concerns, we have to look at,” Baltimore said. “We can’t have judges sitting around with a relatively light workload and other judges being completely overburdened, and they’re all getting paid the same.”
Baltimore pointed to a bill that was passed by the Iowa House in 2016 that would have given the state's chief justice more flexibility in how judicial vacancies were filled. The aim of the legislation was to allow the chief justice to shift resources to other districts if there was a need. The bill received no action in the Iowa Senate.
The Iowa Supreme Court supported the proposal, online state lobbying records show. No group registered against the bill.
Iowa does have a mechanism that allows some flexibility for the chief justice, who in the case of a vacancy can allocate a judicial assignment to another district where “a substantial disparity exists.” Such action also requires approval of a judicial council.
Such action was taken when judges retired in 2003 and 2005, a spokesman for the Iowa Supreme Court said.
In part because of that flexibility and because no district is deemed by the workload report to be more than one judge or one associate judge over-staffed, Iowa Chief Justice Mark Cady has no plan to recommend judicial redistricting, the spokesman said.
Similarly, judicial redistricting is not one of the five recommendations made in the 41-page judicial workload report, which was conducted by the National Center for State Courts and the Judicial Workload Formula Committee. Instead, the report recommends updating the workload data annually and making a few tweaks to the formula used to develop the report.
The Iowa State Bar Association, which represents 8,000 attorneys in Iowa, does not take a formal position on judicial redistricting as a means to even workloads, a spokeswoman for the group said. The group did support the House-passed bill in 2016, online state lobbying records show.
States that have tried to redraw judicial district boundaries as a means to leveling judges’ workloads have encountered significant political opposition. Often, lawmakers are hesitant to support any plan that would reduce the number of judges in the areas they represent.
That’s what Kentucky Chief Justice John Minton Jr. knew he was in for when state legislators asked him to develop a judicial redistricting plan for the state, according to a report on the website for Governing magazine, which covers issues pertinent to state and local governments.
“I went into this as a reluctant participant,” Minton said. “No community wants to be told it’s got to give up a judgeship. There are going to be some who gain and some who lose. And those who lose, they speak up.”
Minton and his colleagues spent two years designing and developing a redistricting system that was careful to maintain the same number of judges, shift judges to the areas they were needed most and not upset the system by not moving judges before their terms ended and not starting until 2022, according to Governing. But despite single-party control of the Kentucky Statehouse and legislative leadership making judicial redistricting a priority, the proposal stalled this year.
An effort to redraw judicial boundaries in North Carolina this year stalled amid accusations that the new boundaries showed partisan bias, making it easier for conservative judges to win election, according to the Greensboro News and Record.