Improving Iowa

An electronic documents system and experimental new business courts are being introduced to make Iowa’s judicial system more accessible and efficient, according to state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady.

”Access to justice in each one of our communities is absolutely essential,” Cady, of Fort Dodge, said Friday.

”We need a court system that operates in an efficient way and operates on a full-time basis,” he added during a meeting with the editorial board of The Messenger.

The changes he outlined are being implemented at a time when Cady and the other six Supreme Court justices are taking their operation on the road. They have heard cases in six different communities outside of Des Moines and have visited 50 schools to talk about the legal system.

”I’m convinced when people do see us, they’re going to like what they see,” he said.

Cady acknowledged that the recent public outreach is partially in response to the 2010 retention election in which former Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and former justices David Baker and Michael Streit were removed from the bench because of voter anger over the 2009 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.

”I think we’re learning from that experience and we’re learning in ways that make our court system better,” he said.

Webster County District Court has switched to the Electronic Document Management System, which Cady described as the first true paperless court system in the country.

”Paper is completely off the table,” he said.

The system will allow people to access their court records from any computer at any time, he said. People will no longer have to pay attorneys to go to the courthouse to get files, and they’ll be able to interact electronically with the judge in charge of a case. Complaints will be filed in court by electronically submitted forms.

Law enforcement officers will be able to get arrest warrants and search warrants via computer, the chief justice added.

The system was introduced in Plymouth and Story counties in 2010 and is being gradually phased in statewide. All Iowa courts are expected to be included in the system by 2016.

The new business courts will handle commercial cases in which the amount of money at stake is more than $200,000. Cady said judges with specialized knowledge of business law will preside over them, and added that they will have the flexibility to meet the specific needs of individual cases.

This arrangement, he said, should lead to quicker resolutions of lawsuits.

The business courts will debut in May and will operate for a three-year period. Following that period judicial leaders will decide if the courts should become permanent.

Cady said three judges, one in Monroe County, one in Polk County and one in Scott County, have been chosen to preside over the business courts. He said those judges will travel as needed to handle cases.

The business courts can function without any new legislative action. The overall budget for the court system does require action by the Legislature and Gov. Terry Branstad.

Cady is asking for a $167,699,367 budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. That budget request includes money to hire 40 new juvenile court officers to work with young people accused of crimes. The chief justice said working with those young people can prevent them from turning to a life of crime that will eventually land them in a state prison.

”For every kid that we keep out of the adult prison system we save this state $2 million to $4 million over the lifetime of that individual,” he said.

The court system, he said, accounts for 2.6 percent of the state budget.

The current court budget is about $162 million. Cady said the court system covers its owns expenses by collecting an estimated $164 million worth of fines and fees.