DES MOINES — The head of Iowa's court system warned Wednesday that "Iowans are losing access to justice" because more than 100 key court jobs statewide remain empty due to ongoing spending cuts from the Legislature.
Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady told legislators in his State of the Judiciary address that the court system is operating with 115 "essential" positions unfilled. Overall, the office has 182 fewer positions than one year ago.
"This means there are fewer judges, fewer court reporters, fewer case schedulers and fewer juvenile court officers," he said. "It means there is a daily struggle to coordinate and deliver services."
Cady also used his annual speech to highlight what he sees as successes in the court system, including in juvenile court programs that divert minors from criminal court. But his roughly 37-minute speech pointed to growing "shortcomings." He said a commitment to addressing cases in a timely period is eroding, with rural residents receiving fewer court services than urban residents.
Cady added that specialty courts dealing with substance abuse cannot be expanded until the Legislature increases funding. Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds highlighted the need to better address opioids in her Condition of the State speech Tuesday, though she didn't mention the court's role in that effort.
Cady's office has a roughly $175 million budget that was reduced by $3 million last fiscal year. Reynolds, who was seated behind Cady during his speech, announced mid-year budget cuts Tuesday that include $1.6 million to the judicial branch. The courts are seeking an increase of nearly $14 million for the budget year that goes into effect in July.
Reynolds has recommended roughly $173 million in new spending to Iowa's next budget, which was last estimated at $7.2 billion. She's recommending about $5 million in new money for judicial.
Lawmakers dealt with multiple budget shortfalls in 2017 because of lower-than-expected revenue growth and they now need to address a roughly $35 million deficit. The Republican-controlled statehouse wants to pass tax cuts this session that some GOP lawmakers believe could grow the economy. Those remarks have been vague and no plan is available yet.
Rep. Gary Worthan is a Storm Lake Republican who heads a key budget committee for the justice system. He said he's concerned funding reductions for the state's courts, corrections and public safety agencies may have been pushed too far in recent budgets.
"We've got to realize that some of these institutions are at tipping points, and we need to do something about it," he said.