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IA: Chief justice: Courts struggling under thin budgets (Shortage of Interpreters)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Iowa's state courts face higher costs, greater language barriers, a bare-bones workforce and more needs for low-income residents as they strive to ensure justice, the state's top judge said today.

Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Marsha Ternus acknowledged the state's budget problems in her annual address to lawmakers and promised to reduce operating costs as the courts continue to serve Iowans.


But resources for the judicial branch are already spread "painfully thin" due to earlier cuts, she said.

Ternus said the courts will likely have to resort to worker furloughs before July, depending on the size of the state budget cuts. Iowans, as a result, could face longer delays and gaps in service as they filter through the state courts.

Ternus also warned that the recession could lead to increases in crime, child abuse, domestic violence, and substance abuse.

"Even in good economic times, the administration of justice is difficult to fulfill given the sheer volume and complexity of problems Iowans bring to their courthouses," Ternus said in her State of the Judiciary remarks. "Because of the effects of the nation's economic downturn, people will need access to justice more than ever."

A proposal submitted to lawmakers in December asks for $163.5 million for state courts in the budget year that begins in July. But judicial branch executives at the time did not realize the extent of the state's budget crisis and now concede that the request is unrealistic, said spokesman Steve Davis. Last year, the state judicial branch requested a $162.6 million budget.

Ternus outlined an array of serious challenges for Iowa's courts, including:

• ACCESS TO LAWYERS: A growing number of Iowans have unmet needs in civil court because they cannot afford a lawyer, Ternus said. The problem lacks a simple solution, she said, but will probably require a combination of government aid and help from the legal community.

"We have long recognized that the cost of legal representation is beyond the reach of the poor, but it is now often beyond the reach of the middle class," Ternus said. "The end result: we have equal justice for some, but certainly not for all."

Ternus asked lawmakers to maintain current funding levels for legal organizations that serve low-income Iowans, which she said are more important than ever as the economy staggers.

• COST OF CIVIL CASES: The high cost and complexity of civil lawsuits has led many Iowans to private services such as mediators and arbitrators, Ternus said. She said some citizens and businesses have opted not to pursue legitimate legal claims because of the cost, or settle out of court even if a claim has no merit.

Ternus suggested that Iowa in the future might need to create "summary trials," which are modeled after traditional hearings but shorter, cheaper and more relaxed in their rules. Businesses might also benefit from business courts that specialize in commercial disputes, she said. Ternus said lawyers and court officers would study the idea further at a conference this year.

NEED FOR INTERPRETERS: State courts and other agencies still struggle with a statewide shortage of qualified language interpreters, Ternus said. The need, she said, is greatest in rural pockets of the state and in languages other than Spanish.

Ternus proposed a statewide interpreter center as a solution, which would pool all qualified interpreters into one place for the courts and government agencies to use.

• DRUG COURTS NEEDED: Ternus said she would like to expand the judicial branch's network of 15 drug courts in Iowa, but cannot until the courts receive more federal funding.

Ternus repeatedly acknowledged the state's budget woes in her speech, and promised to increase efficiency. But many improvements will require help from lawmakers, she said.

"Even before the current economic downturn, our courts were facing many serious challenges," Ternus said. "And now the budget problem, and its potential impact on the delivery of justice to Iowans, looms large."

Key lawmakers said they appreciated that Ternus acknowledged the state's cash shortfalls, and said it was too early to decide how much her specific requests would receive.

"It's crucial that we do more" to ensure equal justice and access to the courts, said Rep. Kurt Swaim, a Bloomfield Democrat who chairs the House judiciary committee.

In a statement, House Republican Leader Kraig Paulsen of Hiawatha said: "I appreciate the court's desire and commitment to ensure justice for all Iowans. I especially appreciate Chief Justice Ternus' interest and initiative in finding ways to improve the administration of her branch of government in a more efficient and cost effective manner."

Related Story, 4/24/08, Courthouse officials eye Spanish, Olivia Moran - The Daily Iowan, http://media.www.dailyiowan.com/media/storage/paper599/news/2008/04/24/Metro/Courthouse.Officials.Eye.Spanish-3346412.shtml

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