Funding for the courts
Every year, legislators at the Iowa Capitol debate the role civil servants should play in moving the state forward. Sometimes, as weíve seen in the past few weeks, the issue of collective bargaining comes up in the conversation. And sometimes (again, as in the case of collective bargaining) public employees arenít happy with the results. But whether Republicans or Democrats are in power, these discussions are ultimately linked to the state budget.
As clerk of court for Dickinson County, I have been watching budget discussions at the statehouse with grave concern.
In our court system (the judicial branch), clerks of court arenít front-and-center in the courtroom, like judges. Nor are we aimless bureaucrats, sitting in back rooms untangling red tape. Weíre on the front lines, executing the mission of giving all Iowans equal access to justice.
If youíve filed a small claim suit, challenged a speeding ticket, or filed for divorce or back child support, you have worked with a clerk of court.
If youíve adopted a child, served as executor for a will or had to file for a protective order against an abusive spouse, you have worked with a clerk of court.
If you or a loved one has needed help with a mental health crisis or a substance abuse problem you have worked with a clerk of court.
Depending on your case, you might never see a judge. You may not even have an attorney. But what you should always have is a clerk of court to shepherd your case through the legal labyrinth from start to finish.
Thus, for many Iowans, we are the face of the justice system. There are already far too few of us. Every one of Iowaís 99 counties has a courthouse. But only two-thirds of them have a clerk of court. In rural areas, our teams can be smallómaybe two to four people, at most. Those tiny teams, in turn, could end up managing offices in multiple counties, covering 60 miles or more. After several consecutive years of underfunding by the legislature, our resources are at the thinnest margin they have ever been. In some areas, that means closing offices if an employee goes on vacation or calls in sick.
Thatís inconvenient if youíre protesting a speeding ticket, needing someone evicted, needing your child support payment or an application for court appointed counsel. Itís never good business when one of the offices in your local courthouse is closed. Especially when they are closed due to budget cuts!
Itís dangerous if you need a restraining order, or are in a mental health crisis.
With the chronic underfunding of the judicial branch, we have already seen numerous clerks of court offices consolidate or restrict hours over the years. We have all taken on more and more duties as vacant positions go unfilled. There is no budgetary maneuver left that will allow us to maintain the current level staffing, services, and hours. Without full funding, something, somewhere will have to give.
And that something will inevitably affect thousands of everyday Iowans who need easy and immediate access to the courts.
I have written to our legislators to ask for their support in fully funding the Judicial Branch, and I invite you to do the same. This isnít just a public employee issue. Itís an Iowa issue. Our work directly impacts ordinary people who live close to us, often facing desperate times, and it would be an absolute shame to deny even one person access to justice simply due to lack of financial support. I ask you to contact me if you need further information about Judicial Branch funding or about the duties of the clerk of court office at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clerk of Court Dickinson County, Iowa