President’s Message: February/March 2017

PCBA President Bridget Penick

I have a tattoo of the scales of justice on my shoulder blade. I was inspired by Robert DeNiro’s tattoo sprawling across his back in Cape Fear, but I was not gutsy enough for that for my first (or any) tattoo. As a lawyer, I suppose it may seem too cutesy, or perhaps it is seen as shameless self-promotion. It is a permanent reminder, though, of the integrity of our U.S. justice system.

The scales of justice symbolize the idea of the fair distribution of law, with no influence of bias, privilege or corruption. Given recent events in this country, I could not be more proud of our judiciary and my fellow lawyers upholding and embodying what the scales of justice represent.

I am writing this message on Valentine’s Day, and I was fortunate to have a Valentine’s lunch date with more than a dozen judges and justices and dozens of Polk County Bar Association lawyers. I shared a table with our speakers, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady and Iowa Court of Appeals Chief Judge David Danilson. As I chatted with them informally and then listened to their prepared remarks, I was reminded of how incredibly proud I am that Iowa has merit selection instead of judicial elections, to minimize politics swaying our scales of justice in one way or the other. As Chief Justice Cady noted, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranked Iowa’s court system as 4th in the nation. The State of Nevada has adopted a court of appeals system mirrored after Iowa’s mode.

As Chief Danilson (sort of) joked, the Iowa Court of Appeals is like the second chair lawyer at trial who does the majority of the work but gets none of the recognition. With just nine judges (and the help of four senior judges), the Iowa Court of Appeals issued a record-setting 1,389 opinions in 2016. As case volume is at an all-time high, but with limited staffing, case processing time has increased only slightly from 2.5 to 2.7 months.

In efforts to keep up the pace, the judges are intentionally writing shorter opinions and are granting oral argument in fewer cases. The pace cannot be sustained. As the Iowa Legislature contemplates the FY18 budget, now is the time for Iowans to contact our legislators to support full funding for Iowa’s judiciary. Chief Justice Cady’s video message underscores the risks to Iowa’s justice system if Iowa courts do not receive adequate funding. Last year, the Legislature appropriated the same amount of funding as the judicial branch received the year before, which was more than $5 million short of the amount needed to maintain the current level of service. As an added blow, a $3 million deappropriation was implemented for the current fiscal year, resulting in a hiring freeze and scheduled court closure day. Accordingly, increased funding for FY2018 is absolutely critical. As identified by Chief Justice Cady, some of the potential consequences include:

  • Closing or reduction of hours at courthouses
  • Layoffs
  • Fewer court service days in rural Iowa
  • Juvenile Court Officers reducing face-to-face visits with at-risk children
  • Elimination of specialty courts (family treatment courts, drug courts, mental health courts)
  • Iowans, especially business owners, will experience delays in civil litigation, as priority will be criminal cases.
  • Delayed maintenance of electronic filing system (EDMS)

My fellow lawyers, I am not asking you all to get tattoos like mine. I am asking you to do something painless and far more important. Please take just a few minutes (or more, if so inclined) to encourage Iowa legislators to fully fund our judiciary. Without full funding, the wheels of justice will necessarily turn significantly slower. If you don’t know who your legislators are or how to contact them, now you do: https://www.legis.iowa.gov/legislators/find